Wakem in a New Light
Before three days had passed after the conversation you have just overheard between Lucy and her father she had contrived to have a private interview with Philip during a visit of Maggie's to her aunt Glegg. For a day and a night Philip turned over in his mind with restless agitation all that Lucy had told him in that interview, till he had thoroughly resolved on a course of action. He thought he saw before him now a possibility of altering his position with respect to Maggie, and removing at least one obstacle between them. He laid his plan and calculated all his moves with the fervid deliberation of a chess-player in the days of his first ardor, and was amazed himself at his sudden genius as a tactician. His plan was as bold as it was thoroughly calculated. Having watched for a moment when his father had nothing more urgent on his hands than the newspaper, he went behind him, laid a hand on his shoulder, and said,–
"Father, will you come up into my sanctum, and look at my new sketches? I've arranged them now."
"I'm getting terrible stiff in the joints, Phil, for climbing those stairs of yours," said Wakem, looking kindly at his son as he laid down his paper. "But come along, then."
"This is a nice place for you, isn't it, Phil?–a capital light that from the roof, eh?" was, as usual, the first thing he said on entering the painting-room. He liked to remind himself and his son too that his fatherly indulgence had provided the accommodation. He had been a good father. Emily would have nothing to reproach him with there, if she came back again from her grave.
"Come, come," he said, putting his double eye-glass over his nose, and seating himself to take a general view while he rested, "you've got a famous show here. Upon my word, I don't see that your things aren't as good as that London artist's–what's his name–that Leyburn gave so much money for."
Philip shook his head and smiled. He had seated himself on his painting-stool, and had taken a lead pencil in his hand, with which he was making strong marks to counteract the sense of tremulousness. He watched his father get up, and walk slowly round, good-naturedly dwelling on the pictures much longer than his amount of genuine taste for landscape would have prompted, till he stopped before a stand on which two pictures were placed,–one much larger than the other, the smaller one in a leather case.
"Bless me! what have you here?" said Wakem, startled by a sudden transition from landscape to portrait. "I thought you'd left off figures. Who are these?"
"They are the same person," said Philip, with calm promptness, "at different ages."
"And what person?" said Wakem, sharply fixing his eyes with a growing look of suspicion on the larger picture.
"Miss Tulliver. The small one is something like what she was when I was at school with her brother at King's Lorton; the larger one is not quite so good a likeness of what she was when I came from abroad."
Wakem turned round fiercely, with a flushed face, letting his eye-glass fall, and looking at his son with a savage expression for a moment, as if he was ready to strike that daring feebleness from the stool. But he threw himself into the armchair again, and thrust his hands into his trouser-pockets, still looking angrily at his son, however. Philip did not return the look, but sat quietly watching the point of his pencil.
"And do you mean to say, then, that you have had any acquaintance with her since you came from abroad?" said Wakem, at last, with that vain effort which rage always makes to throw as much punishment as it desires to inflict into words and tones, since blows are forbidden.
"Yes; I saw a great deal of her for a whole year before her father's death. We met often in that thicket–the Red Deeps–near Dorlcote Mill. I love her dearly; I shall never love any other woman. I have thought of her ever since she was a little girl."
"Go on, sir! And you have corresponded with her all this while?"
"No. I never told her I loved her till just before we parted, and she promised her brother not to see me again or to correspond with me. I am not sure that she loves me or would consent to marry me. But if she would consent,–if she did love me well enough,–I should marry her."
"And this is the return you make me for all the indulgences I've heaped on you?" said Wakem, getting white, and beginning to tremble under an enraged sense of impotence before Philip's calm defiance and concentration of purpose.
"No, father," said Philip, looking up at him for the first time; "I don't regard it as a return. You have been an indulgent father to me; but I have always felt that it was because you had an affectionate wish to give me as much happiness as my unfortunate lot would admit, not that it was a debt you expected me to pay by sacrificing all my chances of happiness to satisfy feelings of yours which I can never share."
"I think most sons would share their father's feelings in this case," said Wakem, bitterly. "The girl's father was an ignorant mad brute, who was within an inch of murdering me. The whole town knows it. And the brother is just as insolent, only in a cooler way. He forbade her seeing you, you say; he'll break every bone in your body, for your greater happiness, if you don't take care. But you seem to have made up your mind; you have counted the consequences, I suppose. Of course you are independent of me; you can marry this girl to-morrow, if you like; you are a man of five-and-twenty,–you can go your way, and I can go mine. We need have no more to do with each other."
Wakem rose and walked toward the door, but something held him back, and instead of leaving the room, he walked up and down it. Philip was slow to reply, and when he spoke, his tone had a more incisive quietness and clearness than ever.
"No; I can't marry Miss Tulliver, even if she would have me, if I have only my own resources to maintain her with. I have been brought up to no profession. I can't offer her poverty as well as deformity."
"Ah, there is a reason for your clinging to me, doubtless," said Wakem, still bitterly, though Philip's last words had given him a pang; they had stirred a feeling which had been a habit for a quarter of a century. He threw himself into the chair again.
"I expected all this," said Philip. "I know these scenes are often happening between father and son. If I were like other men of my age, I might answer your angry words by still angrier; we might part; I should marry the woman I love, and have a chance of being as happy as the rest. But if it will be a satisfaction to you to annihilate the very object of everything you've done for me, you have an advantage over most fathers; you can completely deprive me of the only thing that would make my life worth having."
Philip paused, but his father was silent.
"You know best what satisfaction you would have, beyond that of gratifying a ridiculous rancor worthy only of wandering savages."
"Ridiculous rancor!" Wakem burst out. "What do you mean? Damn it! is a man to be horsewhipped by a boor and love him for it? Besides, there's that cold, proud devil of a son, who said a word to me I shall not forget when we had the settling. He would be as pleasant a mark for a bullet as I know, if he were worth the expense."
"I don't mean your resentment toward them," said Philip, who had his reasons for some sympathy with this view of Tom, "though a feeling of revenge is not worth much, that you should care to keep it. I mean your extending the enmity to a helpless girl, who has too much sense and goodness to share their narrow prejudices. She has never entered into the family quarrels."
"What does that signify? We don't ask what a woman does; we ask whom she belongs to. It's altogether a degrading thing to you, to think of marrying old Tulliver's daughter."
For the first time in the dialogue, Philip lost some of his self-control, and colored with anger.
"Miss Tulliver," he said, with bitter incisiveness, "has the only grounds of rank that anything but vulgar folly can suppose to belong to the middle class; she is thoroughly refined, and her friends, whatever else they may be, are respected for irreproachable honor and integrity. All St. Ogg's, I fancy, would pronounce her to be more than my equal."
Wakem darted a glance of fierce question at his son; but Philip was not looking at him, and with a certain penitent consciousness went on, in a few moments, as if in amplification of his last words,–
"Find a single person in St. Ogg's who will not tell you that a beautiful creature like her would be throwing herself away on a pitiable object like me."
"Not she!" said Wakem, rising again, and forgetting everything else in a burst of resentful pride, half fatherly, half personal. "It would be a deuced fine match for her. It's all stuff about an accidental deformity, when a girl's really attached to a man."
"But girls are not apt to get attached under those circumstances," said Philip.
"Well, then," said Wakem, rather brutally, trying to recover his previous position, "if she doesn't care for you, you might have spared yourself the trouble of talking to me about her, and you might have spared me the trouble of refusing my consent to what was never likely to happen."
Wakem strode to the door, and without looking round again, banged it after him.
Philip was not without confidence that his father would be ultimately wrought upon as he had expected, by what had passed; but the scene had jarred upon his nerves, which were as sensitive as a woman's. He determined not to go down to dinner; he couldn't meet his father again that day. It was Wakem's habit, when he had no company at home, to go out in the evening, often as early as half-past seven; and as it was far on in the afternoon now, Philip locked up his room and went out for a long ramble, thinking he would not return until his father was out of the house again. He got into a boat, and went down the river to a favorite village, where he dined, and lingered till it was late enough for him to return. He had never had any sort of quarrel with his father before, and had a sickening fear that this contest, just begun, might go on for weeks; and what might not happen in that time? He would not allow himself to define what that involuntary question meant. But if he could once be in the position of Maggie's accepted, acknowledged lover, there would be less room for vague dread. He went up to his painting-room again, and threw himself with a sense of fatigue into the armchair, looking round absently at the views of water and rock that were ranged around, till he fell into a doze, in which he fancied Maggie was slipping down a glistening, green, slimy channel of a waterfall, and he was looking on helpless, till he was awakened by what seemed a sudden, awful crash.
It was the opening of the door, and he could hardly have dozen more than a few moments, for there was no perceptible change in the evening light. It was his father who entered; and when Philip moved to vacate the chair for him, he said,–
"Sit still. I'd rather walk about."
He stalked up and down the room once or twice, and then, standing opposite Philip with his hands thrust in his side pockets, he said, as if continuing a conversation that had not been broken off,–
"But this girl seems to have been fond of you, Phil, else she wouldn't have met you in that way."
Philip's heart was beating rapidly, and a transient flush passed over his face like a gleam. It was not quite easy to speak at once.
"She liked me at King's Lorton, when she was a little girl, because I used to sit with her brother a great deal when he had hurt his foot. She had kept that in her memory, and thought of me as a friend of a long while ago. She didn't think of me as a lover when she met me."
"Well, but you made love to her at last. What did she say then?" said Wakem, walking about again.
"She said she did love me then."
"Confound it, then; what else do you want? Is she a jilt?"
"She was very young then," said Philip, hesitatingly. "I'm afraid she hardly knew what she felt. I'm afraid our long separation, and the idea that events must always divide us, may have made a difference."
"But she's in the town. I've seen her at church. Haven't you spoken to her since you came back?"
"Yes, at Mr. Deane's. But I couldn't renew my proposals to her on several grounds. One obstacle would be removed if you would give your consent,–if you would be willing to think of her as a daughter-in-law."
Wakem was silent a little while, pausing before Maggie's picture.
"She's not the sort of woman your mother was, though, Phil," he said, at last. "I saw her at church,–she's handsomer than this,–deuced fine eyes and fine figure, I saw; but rather dangerous and unmanageable, eh?"
"She's very tender and affectionate, and so simple,–without the airs and petty contrivances other women have."
"Ah?" said Wakem. Then looking round at his son, "But your mother looked gentler; she had that brown wavy hair and gray eyes, like yours. You can't remember her very well. It was a thousand pities I'd no likeness of her."
"Then, shouldn't you be glad for me to have the same sort of happiness, father, to sweeten my life for me? There can never be another tie so strong to you as that which began eight-and-twenty years ago, when you married my mother, and you have been tightening it ever since."
"Ah, Phil, you're the only fellow that knows the best of me," said Wakem, giving his hand to his son. "We must keep together if we can. And now, what am I to do? You must come downstairs and tell me. Am I to go and call on this dark-eyed damsel?"
The barrier once thrown down in this way, Philip could talk freely to his father of their entire relation with the Tullivers,–of the desire to get the mill and land back into the family, and of its transfer to Guest & Co. as an intermediate step. He could venture now to be persuasive and urgent, and his father yielded with more readiness than he had calculated on.
"I don't care about the mill," he said at last, with a sort of angry compliance. "I've had an infernal deal of bother lately about the mill. Let them pay me for my improvements, that's all. But there's one thing you needn't ask me. I shall have no direct transactions with young Tulliver. If you like to swallow him for his sister's sake, you may; but I've no sauce that will make him go down."
I leave you to imagine the agreeable feelings with which Philip went to Mr. Deane the next day, to say that Mr. Wakem was ready to open the negotiations, and Lucy's pretty triumph as she appealed to her father whether she had not proved her great business abilities. Mr. Deane was rather puzzled, and suspected that there had been something "going on" among the young people to which he wanted a clew. But to men of Mr. Deane's stamp, what goes on among the young people is as extraneous to the real business of life as what goes on among the birds and butterflies, until it can be shown to have a malign bearing on monetary affairs. And in this case the bearing appeared to be entirely propitious.
Charity in Full-Dress
The culmination of Maggie's career as an admired member of society in St. Ogg's was certainly the day of the bazaar, when her simple noble beauty, clad in a white muslin of some soft-floating kind, which I suspect must have come from the stores of aunt Pullet's wardrobe, appeared with marked distinction among the more adorned and conventional women around her. We perhaps never detect how much of our social demeanor is made up of artificial airs until we see a person who is at once beautiful and simple; without the beauty, we are apt to call simplicity awkwardness. The Miss Guests were much too well-bred to have any of the grimaces and affected tones that belong to pretentious vulgarity; but their stall being next to the one where Maggie sat, it seemed newly obvious to-day that Miss Guest held her chin too high, and that Miss Laura spoke and moved continually with a view to effect.
All well-dressed St. Ogg's and its neighborhood were there; and it would have been worth while to come even from a distance, to see the fine old hall, with its open roof and carved oaken rafters, and great oaken folding-doors, and light shed down from a height on the many-colored show beneath; a very quaint place, with broad faded stripes painted on the walls, and here and there a show of heraldic animals of a bristly, long-snouted character, the cherished emblems of a noble family once the seigniors of this now civic hall. A grand arch, cut in the upper wall at one end, surmounted an oaken orchestra, with an open room behind it, where hothouse plants and stalls for refreshments were disposed; an agreeable resort for gentlemen disposed to loiter, and yet to exchange the occasional crush down below for a more commodious point of view. In fact, the perfect fitness of this ancient building for an admirable modern purpose, that made charity truly elegant, and led through vanity up to the supply of a deficit, was so striking that hardly a person entered the room without exchanging the remark more than once. Near the great arch over the orchestra was the stone oriel with painted glass, which was one of the venerable inconsistencies of the old hall; and it was close by this that Lucy had her stall, for the convenience of certain large plain articles which she had taken charge of for Mrs. Kenn. Maggie had begged to sit at the open end of the stall, and to have the sale of these articles rather than of bead-mats and other elaborate products of which she had but a dim understanding. But it soon appeared that the gentlemen's dressing-gowns, which were among her commodities, were objects of such general attention and inquiry, and excited so troublesome a curiosity as to their lining and comparative merits, together with a determination to test them by trying on, as to make her post a very conspicuous one. The ladies who had commodities of their own to sell, and did not want dressing-gowns, saw at once the frivolity and bad taste of this masculine preference for goods which any tailor could furnish; and it is possible that the emphatic notice of various kinds which was drawn toward Miss Tulliver on this public occasion, threw a very strong and unmistakable light on her subsequent conduct in many minds then present. Not that anger, on account of spurned beauty can dwell in the celestial breasts of charitable ladies, but rather that the errors of persons who have once been much admired necessarily take a deeper tinge from the mere force of contrast; and also, that to-day Maggie's conspicuous position, for the first time, made evident certain characteristics which were subsequently felt to have an explanatory bearing. There was something rather bold in Miss Tulliver's direct gaze, and something undefinably coarse in the style of her beauty, which placed her, in the opinion of all feminine judges, far below her cousin Miss Deane; for the ladies of St. Ogg's had now completely ceded to Lucy their hypothetic claims on the admiration of Mr. Stephen Guest.
As for dear little Lucy herself, her late benevolent triumph about the Mill, and all the affectionate projects she was cherishing for Maggie and Philip, helped to give her the highest spirits to-day, and she felt nothing but pleasure in the evidence of Maggie's attractiveness. It is true, she was looking very charming herself, and Stephen was paying her the utmost attention on this public occasion; jealously buying up the articles he had seen under her fingers in the process of making, and gayly helping her to cajole the male customers into the purchase of the most effeminate futilities. He chose to lay aside his hat and wear a scarlet fez of her embroidering; but by superficial observers this was necessarily liable to be interpreted less as a compliment to Lucy than as a mark of coxcombry. "Guest is a great coxcomb," young Torry observed; "but then he is a privileged person in St. Ogg's–he carries all before him; if another fellow did such things, everybody would say he made a fool of himself."
And Stephen purchased absolutely nothing from Maggie, until Lucy said, in rather a vexed undertone,–
"See, now; all the things of Maggie's knitting will be gone, and you will not have bought one. There are those deliciously soft warm things for the wrists,–do buy them."
"Oh no," said Stephen, "they must be intended for imaginative persons, who can chill themselves on this warm day by thinking of the frosty Caucasus. Stern reason is my forte, you know. You must get Philip to buy those. By the way, why doesn't he come?"
"He never likes going where there are many people, though I enjoined him to come. He said he would buy up any of my goods that the rest of the world rejected. But now, do go and buy something of Maggie."
"No, no; see, she has got a customer; there is old Wakem himself just coming up."
Lucy's eyes turned with anxious interest toward Maggie to see how she went through this first interview, since a sadly memorable time, with a man toward whom she must have so strange a mixture of feelings; but she was pleased to notice that Wakem had tact enough to enter at once into talk about the bazaar wares, and appear interested in purchasing, smiling now and then kindly at Maggie, and not calling on her to speak much, as if he observed that she was rather pale and tremulous.
"Why, Wakem is making himself particularly amiable to your cousin," said Stephen, in an undertone to Lucy; "is it pure magnanimity? You talked of a family quarrel."
"Oh, that will soon be quite healed, I hope," said Lucy, becoming a little indiscreet in her satisfaction, and speaking with an air of significance. But Stephen did not appear to notice this, and as some lady-purchasers came up, he lounged on toward Maggie's end, handling trifles and standing aloof until Wakem, who had taken out his purse, had finished his t transactions.
"My son came with me," he overheard Wakem saying, "but he has vanished into some other part of the building, and has left all these charitable gallantries to me. I hope you'll reproach him for his shabby conduct."
She returned his smile and bow without speaking, and he turned away, only then observing Stephen and nodding to him. Maggie, conscious that Stephen was still there, busied herself with counting money, and avoided looking up. She had been well pleased that he had devoted himself to Lucy to-day, and had not come near her. They had begun the morning with an indifferent salutation, and both had rejoiced in being aloof from each other, like a patient who has actually done without his opium, in spite of former failures in resolution. And during the last few days they had even been making up their minds to failures, looking to the outward events that must soon come to separate them, as a reason for dispensing with self-conquest in detail.
Stephen moved step by step as if he were being unwillingly dragged, until he had got round the open end of the stall, and was half hidden by a screen of draperies. Maggie went on counting her money till she suddenly heard a deep gentle voice saying, "Aren't you very tried? Do let me bring you something,–some fruit or jelly, mayn't I?"
The unexpected tones shook her like a sudden accidental vibration of a harp close by her.
"Oh no, thank you," she said faintly, and only half looking up for an instant.
"You look so pale," Stephen insisted, in a more entreating tone. "I'm sure you're exhausted. I must disobey you, and bring something."
"No, indeed, I couldn't take it."
"Are you angry with me? What have I done? Do look at me."
"Pray, go away," said Maggie, looking at him helplessly, her eyes glancing immediately from him to the opposite corner of the orchestra, which was half hidden by the folds of the old faded green curtain. Maggie had no sooner uttered this entreaty than she was wretched at the admission it implied; but Stephen turned away at once, and following her upward glance, he saw Philip Wakem sealed in the half-hidden corner, so that he could command little more than that angle of the hall in which Maggie sat. An entirely new though occurred to Stephen, and linking itself with what he had observed of Wakem's manner, and with Lucy's reply to his observation, it convinced him that there had been some former relation between Philip and Maggie beyond that childish one of which he had heard. More than one impulse made him immediately leave the hall and go upstairs to the refreshment-room, where, walking up to Philip, he sat down behind him, and put his hand on his shoulder.
"Are you studying for a portrait, Phil," he said, "or for a sketch of that oriel window? By George, it makes a capital bit from this dark corner, with the curtain just marking it off."
"I have been studying expression," said Philip, curtly.
"What! Miss Tulliver's? It's rather of the savage-moody order to-day, I think,–something of the fallen princess serving behind a counter. Her cousin sent me to her with a civil offer to get her some refreshment, but I have been snubbed, as usual. There's natural antipathy between us, I suppose; I have seldom the honor to please her."
"What a hypocrite you are!" said Philip, flushing angrily.
"What! because experience must have told me that I'm universally pleasing? I admit the law, but there's some disturbing force here."
"I am going," said Philip, rising abruptly.
"So am I–to get a breath of fresh air; this place gets oppressive. I think I have done suit and service long enough."
The two friends walked downstairs together without speaking. Philip turned through the outer door into the court-yard; but Stephen, saying, "Oh, by the by, I must call in here," went on along the passage to one of the rooms at the other end of the building, which were appropriated to the town library. He had the room all to himself, and a man requires nothing less than this when he wants to dash his cap on the table, throw himself astride a chair, and stare at a high brick wall with a frown which would not have been beneath the occasion if he had been slaying "the giant Python." The conduct that issues from a moral conflict has often so close a resemblance to vice that the distinction escapes all outward judgments founded on a mere comparison of actions. It is clear to you, I hope, that Stephen was not a hypocrite,–capable of deliberate doubleness for a selfish end; and yet his fluctuations between the indulgence of a feeling and the systematic concealment of it might have made a good case in support of Philip's accusation.
Meanwhile, Maggie sat at her stall cold and trembling, with that painful sensation in the eyes which comes from resolutely repressed tears. Was her life to be always like this,–always bringing some new source of inward strife? She heard confusedly the busy, indifferent voices around her, and wished her mind could flow into that easy babbling current. It was at this moment that Dr. Kenn, who had quite lately come into the hall, and was now walking down the middle with his hands behind him, taking a general view, fixed his eyes on Maggie for the first time, and was struck with the expression of pain on her beautiful face. She was sitting quite still, for the stream of customers had lessened at this late hour in the afternoon; the gentlemen had chiefly chosen the middle of the day, and Maggie's stall was looking rather bare. This, with her absent, pained expression, finished the contrast between her and her companions, who were all bright, eager, and busy. He was strongly arrested. Her face had naturally drawn his attention as a new and striking one at church, and he had been introduced to her during a short call on business at Mr. Deane's, but he had never spoken more than three words to her. He walked toward her now, and Maggie, perceiving some one approaching, roused herself to look up and be prepared to speak. She felt a childlike, instinctive relief from the sense of uneasiness in this exertion, when she saw it was Dr. Kenn's face that was looking at her; that plain, middle-aged face, with a grave, penetrating kindness in it, seeming to tell of a human being who had reached a firm, safe strand, but was looking with helpful pity toward the strugglers still tossed by the waves, had an effect on Maggie at this moment which was afterward remembered by her as if it had been a promise. The middle-aged, who have lived through their strongest emotions, but are yet in the time when memory is still half passionate and not merely contemplative, should surely be a sort of natural priesthood, whom life has disciplined and consecrated to be the refuge and rescue of early stumblers and victims of self-despair. Most of us, at some moment in our young lives, would have welcomed a priest of that natural order in any sort of canonicals or uncanonicals, but had to scramble upward into all the difficulties of nineteen entirely without such aid, as Maggie did.
"You find your office rather a fatiguing one, I fear, Miss Tulliver," said Dr. Kenn.
"It is, rather," said Maggie, simply, not being accustomed to simpler amiable denials of obvious facts.
"But I can tell Mrs. Kenn that you have disposed of her goods very quickly," he added; "she will be very much obliged to you."
"Oh, I have done nothing; the gentlemen came very fast to buy the dressing-gowns and embroidered waistcoats, but I think any of the other ladies would have sold more; I didn't know what to say about them."
Dr. Kenn smiled. "I hope I'm going to have you as a permanent parishioner now, Miss Tulliver; am I? You have been at a distance from us hitherto."
"I have been a teacher in a school, and I'm going into another situation of the same kind very soon."
"Ah? I was hoping you would remain among your friends, who are all in this neighborhood, I believe."
"Oh, I must go," said Maggie, earnestly, looking at Dr. Kenn with an expression of reliance, as if she had told him her history in those three words. It was one of those moments of implicit revelation which will sometimes happen even between people who meet quite transiently,–on a mile's journey, perhaps, or when resting by the wayside. There is always this possibility of a word or look from a stranger to keep alive the sense of human brotherhood.
Dr. Kenn's ear and eye took in all the signs that this brief confidence of Maggie's was charged with meaning.
"I understand," he said; "you feel it right to go. But that will not prevent our meeting again, I hope; it will not prevent my knowing you better, if I can be of any service to you."
He put out his hand and pressed hers kindly before he turned away.
"She has some trouble or other at heart," he thought. "Poor child! she looks as if she might turn out to be one of
'The souls by nature pitched too high,
By suffering plunged too low.'
"There's something wonderfully honest in those beautiful eyes."
It may be surprising that Maggie, among whose many imperfections an excessive delight in admiration and acknowledged supremacy were not absent now, any more than when she was instructing the gypsies with a view toward achieving a royal position among them, was not more elated on a day when she had had the tribute of so many looks and smiles, together with that satisfactory consciousness which had necessarily come from being taken before Lucy's chevalglass, and made to look at the full length of her tall beauty, crowned by the night of her massy hair. Maggie had smiled at herself then, and for the moment had forgotten everything in the sense of her own beauty. If that state of mind could have lasted, her choice would have been to have Stephen Guest at her feet, offering her a life filled with all luxuries, with daily incense of adoration near and distant, and with all possibilities of culture at her command. But there were things in her stronger than vanity,–passion and affection, and long, deep memories of early discipline and effort, of early claims on her love and pity; and the stream of vanity was soon swept along and mingled imperceptibly with that wider current which was at its highest force today, under the double urgency of the events and inward impulses brought by the last week.
Philip had not spoken to her himself about the removal of obstacles between them on his father's side,–he shrank from that; but he had told everything to Lucy, with the hope that Maggie, being informed through her, might give him some encouraging sign that their being brought thus much nearer to each other was a happiness to her. The rush of conflicting feelings was too great for Maggie to say much when Lucy, with a face breathing playful joy, like one of Correggio's cherubs, poured forth her triumphant revelation; and Lucy could hardly be surprised that she could do little more than cry with gladness at the thought of her father's wish being fulfilled, and of Tom's getting the Mill again in reward for all his hard striving. The details of preparation for the bazaar had then come to usurp Lucy's attention for the next few days, and nothing had been said by the cousins on subjects that were likely to rouse deeper feelings. Philip had been to the house more than once, but Maggie had had no private conversation with him, and thus she had been left to fight her inward battle without interference.
But when the bazaar was fairly ended, and the cousins were alone again, resting together at home, Lucy said,–
"You must give up going to stay with your aunt Moss the day after to-morrow, Maggie; write a note to her, and tell her you have put it off at my request, and I'll send the man with it. She won't be displeased; you'll have plenty of time to go by-and-by; and I don't want you to go out of the way just now."
"Yes, indeed I must go, dear; I can't put it off. I wouldn't leave aunt Gritty out for the world. And I shall have very little time, for I'm going away to a new situation on the 25th of June."
"Maggie!" said Lucy, almost white with astonishment.
"I didn't tell you, dear," said Maggie, making a great effort to command herself, "because you've been so busy. But some time ago I wrote to our old governess, Miss Firniss, to ask her to let me know if she met with any situation that I could fill, and the other day I had a letter from her telling me that I could take three orphan pupils of hers to the coast during the holidays, and then make trial of a situation with her as teacher. I wrote yesterday to accept the offer."
Lucy felt so hurt that for some moments she was unable to speak.
"Maggie," she said at last, "how could you be so unkind to me–not to tell me–to take such a step–and now!" She hesitated a little, and then added, "And Philip? I thought everything was going to be so happy. Oh, Maggie, what is the reason? Give it up; let me write. There is nothing now to keep you and Philip apart."
"Yes," said Maggie, faintly. "There is Tom's feeling. He said I must give him up if I married Philip. And I know he will not change–at least not for a long while–unless something happened to soften him."
"But I will talk to him; he's coming back this week. And this good news about the Mill will soften him. And I'll talk to him about Philip. Tom's always very compliant to me; I don't think he's so obstinate."
"But I must go," said Maggie, in a distressed voice. "I must leave some time to pack. Don't press me to stay, dear Lucy."
Lucy was silent for two or three minutes, looking away and ruminating. At length she knelt down by her cousin, and looking up in her face with anxious seriousness, said,–
"Maggie, is it that you don't love Philip well enough to marry him? Tell me–trust me."
Maggie held Lucy's hands tightly in silence a little while. Her own hands were quite cold. But when she spoke, her voice was quite clear and distinct.
"Yes, Lucy, I would choose to marry him. I think it would be the best and highest lot for me,–to make his life happy. He loved me first. No one else could be quite what he is to me. But I can't divide myself from my brother for life. I must go away, and wait. Pray don't speak to me again about it."
Lucy obeyed in pain and wonder. The next word she said was,–
"Well, dear Maggie, at least you will go to the dance at Park House to-morrow, and have some music and brightness, before you go to pay these dull dutiful visits. Ah! here come aunty and the tea."
The Spell Seems Broken
The suite of rooms opening into each other at Park House looked duly brilliant with lights and flowers and the personal splendors of sixteen couples, with attendant parents and guardians. The focus of brilliancy was the long drawing-room, where the dancing went forward, under the inspiration of the grand piano; the library, into which it opened at one end, had the more sober illumination of maturity, with caps and cards; and at the other end the pretty sitting-room, with a conservatory attached, was left as an occasional cool retreat. Lucy, who had laid aside her black for the first time, and had her pretty slimness set off by an abundant dress of white crape, was the acknowledged queen of the occasion; for this was one of the Miss Guests' thoroughly condescending parties, including no member of any aristocracy higher than that of St. Ogg's, and stretching to the extreme limits of commercial and professional gentility.
Maggie at first refused to dance, saying that she had forgotten all the figures–it was so many years since she had danced at school; and she was glad to have that excuse, for it is ill dancing with a heavy heart. But at length the music wrought in her young limbs, and the longing came; even though it was the horrible young Torry, who walked up a second time to try and persuade her. She warned him that she could not dance anything but a country-dance; but he, of course, was willing to wait for that high felicity, meaning only to be complimentary when he assured her at several intervals that it was a "great bore" that she couldn't waltz, he would have liked so much to waltz with her. But at last it was the turn of the good old-fashioned dance which has the least of vanity and the most of merriment in it, and Maggie quite forgot her troublous life in a childlike enjoyment of that half-rustic rhythm which seems to banish pretentious etiquette. She felt quite charitably toward young Torry, as his hand bore her along and held her up in the dance; her eyes and cheeks had that fire of young joy in them which will flame out if it can find the least breath to fan it; and her simple black dress, with its bit of black lace, seemed like the dim setting of a jewel.
Stephen had not yet asked her to dance; had not yet paid her more than a passing civility. Since yesterday, that inward vision of her which perpetually made part of his consciousness, had been half screened by the image of Philip Wakem, which came across it like a blot; there was some attachment between her and Philip; at least there was an attachment on his side, which made her feel in some bondage. Here, then, Stephen told himself, was another claim of honor which called on him to resist the attraction that was continually threatening to overpower him. He told himself so; and yet he had once or twice felt a certain savage resistance, and at another moment a shuddering repugnance, to this intrusion of Philip's image, which almost made it a new incitement to rush toward Maggie and claim her for himself. Nevertheless, he had done what he meant to do this evening,–he had kept aloof from her; he had hardly looked at her; and he had been gayly assiduous to Lucy. But now his eyes were devouring Maggie; he felt inclined to kick young Torry out of the dance, and take his place. Then he wanted the dance to end that he might get rid of his partner. The possibility that he too should dance with Maggie, and have her hand in his so long, was beginning to possess him like a thirst. But even now their hands were meeting in the dance,–were meeting still to the very end of it, though they were far off each other.
Stephen hardly knew what happened, or in what automatic way he got through the duties of politeness in the interval, until he was free and saw Maggie seated alone again, at the farther end of the room. He made his way toward her round the couples that were forming for the waltz; and when Maggie became conscious that she was the person he sought, she felt, in spite of all the thoughts that had gone before, a glowing gladness at heart. Her eyes and cheeks were still brightened with her childlike enthusiasm in the dance; her whole frame was set to joy and tenderness; even the coming pain could not seem bitter,–she was ready to welcome it as a part of life, for life at this moment seemed a keen, vibrating consciousness poised above pleasure or pain. This one, this last night, she might expand unrestrainedly in the warmth of the present, without those chill, eating thoughts of the past and the future.
"They're going to waltz again," said Stephen, bending to speak to her, with that glance and tone of subdued tenderness which young dreams create to themselves in the summer woods when low, cooing voices fill the air. Such glances and tones bring the breath of poetry with them into a room that is half stifling with glaring gas and hard flirtation.
"They are going to waltz again. It is rather dizzy work to look on, and the room is very warm; shall we walk about a little?"
He took her hand and placed it within his arm, and they walked on into the sitting-room, where the tables were strewn with engravings for the accommodation of visitors who would not want to look at them. But no visitors were here at this moment. They passed on into the conservatory.
"How strange and unreal the trees and flowers look with the lights among them!" said Maggie, in a low voice. "They look as if they belonged to an enchanted land, and would never fade away; I could fancy they were all made of jewels."
She was looking at the tier of geraniums as she spoke, and Stephen made no answer; but he was looking at her; and does not a supreme poet blend light and sound into one, calling darkness mute, and light eloquent? Something strangely powerful there was in the light of Stephen's long gaze, for it made Maggie's face turn toward it and look upward at it, slowly, like a flower at the ascending brightness. And they walked unsteadily on, without feeling that they were walking; without feeling anything but that long, grave, mutual gaze which has the solemnity belonging to all deep human passion. The hovering thought that they must and would renounce each other made this moment of mute confession more intense in its rapture.
But they had reached the end of the conservatory, and were obliged to pause and turn. The change of movement brought a new consciousness to Maggie; she blushed deeply, turned away her head, and drew her arm from Stephen's, going up to some flowers to smell them. Stephen stood motionless, and still pale.
"Oh, may I get this rose?" said Maggie, making a great effort to say something, and dissipate the burning sense of irretrievable confession. "I think I am quite wicked with roses; I like to gather them and smell them till they have no scent left."
Stephen was mute; he was incapable of putting a sentence together, and Maggie bent her arm a little upward toward the large half-opened rose that had attracted her. Who has not felt the beauty of a woman's arm? The unspeakable suggestions of tenderness that lie in the dimpled elbow, and all the varied gently lessening curves, down to the delicate wrist, with its tiniest, almost imperceptible nicks in the firm softness. A woman's arm touched the soul of a great sculptor two thousand years ago, so that he wrought an image of it for the Parthenon which moves us still as it clasps lovingly the timeworn marble of a headless trunk. Maggie's was such an arm as that, and it had the warm tints of life.
A mad impulse seized on Stephen; he darted toward the arm, and showered kisses on it, clasping the wrist.
But the next moment Maggie snatched it from him, and glared at him like a wounded war-goddess, quivering with rage and humiliation.
"How dare you?" She spoke in a deeply shaken, half-smothered voice. "What right have I given you to insult me?"
She darted from him into the adjoining room, and threw herself on the sofa, panting and trembling.
A horrible punishment was come upon her for the sin of allowing a moment's happiness that was treachery to Lucy, to Philip, to her own better soul. That momentary happiness had been smitten with a blight, a leprosy; Stephen thought more lightly of her than he did of Lucy.
As for Stephen, he leaned back against the framework of the conservatory, dizzy with the conflict of passions,–love, rage, and confused despair; despair at his want of self-mastery, and despair that he had offended Maggie.
The last feeling surmounted every other; to be by her side again and entreat forgiveness was the only thing that had the force of a motive for him, and she had not been seated more than a few minutes when he came and stood humbly before her. But Maggie's bitter rage was unspent.
"Leave me to myself, if you please," she said, with impetuous haughtiness, "and for the future avoid me."
Stephen turned away, and walked backward and forward at the other end of the room. There was the dire necessity of going back into the dancing-room again, and he was beginning to be conscious of that. They had been absent so short a time, that when he went in again the waltz was not ended.
Maggie, too, was not long before she re-entered. All the pride of her nature was stung into activity; the hateful weakness which had dragged her within reach of this wound to her self-respect had at least wrought its own cure. The thoughts and temptations of the last month should all be flung away into an unvisited chamber of memory. There was nothing to allure her now; duty would be easy, and all the old calm purposes would reign peacefully once more. She re-entered the drawing-room still with some excited brightness in her face, but with a sense of proud self-command that defied anything to agitate her. She refused to dance again, but she talked quite readily and calmly with every one who addressed her. And when they got home that night, she kissed Lucy with a free heart, almost exulting in this scorching moment, which had delivered her from the possibility of another word or look that would have the stamp of treachery toward that gentle, unsuspicious sister.
The next morning Maggie did not set off to Basset quite so soon as she had expected. Her mother was to accompany her in the carriage, and household business could not be dispatched hastily by Mrs. Tulliver. So Maggie, who had been in a hurry to prepare herself, had to sit waiting, equipped for the drive, in the garden. Lucy was busy in the house wrapping up some bazaar presents for the younger ones at Basset, and when there was a loud ring at the door-bell, Maggie felt some alarm lest Lucy should bring out Stephen to her; it was sure to be Stephen.
But presently the visitor came out into the garden alone, and seated himself by her on the garden-chair. It was not Stephen.
"We can just catch the tips of the Scotch firs, Maggie, from this seat," said Philip.
They had taken each other's hands in silence, but Maggie had looked at him with a more complete revival of the old childlike affectionate smile than he had seen before, and he felt encouraged.
"Yes," she said, "I often look at them, and wish I could see the low sunlight on the stems again. But I have never been that way but once,–to the churchyard with my mother."
"I have been there, I go there, continually," said Philip. "I have nothing but the past to live upon."
A keen remembrance and keen pity impelled Maggie to put her hand in Philip's. They had so often walked hand in hand!
"I remember all the spots," she said,–"just where you told me of particular things, beautiful stories that I had never heard of before."
"You will go there again soon, won't you, Maggie?" said Philip, getting timid. "The Mill will soon be your brother's home again."
"Yes; but I shall not be there," said Maggie. "I shall only hear of that happiness. I am going away again; Lucy has not told you, perhaps?"
"Then the future will never join on to the past again, Maggie? That book is quite closed?"
The gray eyes that had so often looked up at her with entreating worship, looked up at her now, with a last struggling ray of hope in them, and Maggie met them with her large sincere gaze.
"That book never will be closed, Philip," she said, with grave sadness; "I desire no future that will break the ties of the past. But the tie to my brother is one of the strongest. I can do nothing willingly that will divide me always from him."
"Is that the only reason that would keep us apart forever, Maggie?" said Philip, with a desperate determination to have a definite answer.
"The only reason," said Maggie, with calm decision. And she believed it. At that moment she felt as if the enchanted cup had been dashed to the ground. The reactionary excitement that gave her a proud self-mastery had not subsided, and she looked at the future with a sense of calm choice.
They sat hand in hand without looking at each other or speaking for a few minutes; in Maggie's mind the first scenes of love and parting were more present than the actual moment, and she was looking at Philip in the Red Deeps.
Philip felt that he ought to have been thoroughly happy in that answer of hers; she was as open and transparent as a rock-pool. Why was he not thoroughly happy? Jealousy is never satisfied with anything short of an omniscience that would detect the subtlest fold of the heart.
In the Lane
Maggie had been four days at her aunt Moss's giving the early June sunshine quite a new brightness in the care-dimmed eyes of that affectionate woman, and making an epoch for her cousins great and small, who were learning her words and actions by heart, as if she had been a transient avatar of perfect wisdom and beauty.
She was standing on the causeway with her aunt and a group of cousins feeding the chickens, at that quiet moment in the life of the farmyards before the afternoon milking-time. The great buildings round the hollow yard were as dreary and tumbledown as ever, but over the old garden-wall the straggling rose-bushes were beginning to toss their summer weight, and the gray wood and old bricks of the house, on its higher level, had a look of sleepy age in the broad afternoon sunlight, that suited the quiescent time. Maggie, with her bonnet over her arm, was smiling down at the hatch of small fluffy chickens, when her aunt exclaimed,–
"Goodness me! who is that gentleman coming in at the gate?"
It was a gentleman on a tall bay horse; and the flanks and neck of the horse were streaked black with fast riding. Maggie felt a beating at head and heart, horrible as the sudden leaping to life of a savage enemy who had feigned death.
"Who is it, my dear?" said Mrs. Moss, seeing in Maggie's face the evidence that she knew.
"It is Mr. Stephen Guest," said Maggie, rather faintly. "My cousin Lucy's–a gentleman who is very intimate at my cousin's."
Stephen was already close to them, had jumped off his horse, and now raised his hat as he advanced.
"Hold the horse, Willy," said Mrs. Moss to the twelve-year-old boy.
"No, thank you," said Stephen, pulling at the horse's impatiently tossing head. "I must be going again immediately. I have a message to deliver to you, Miss Tulliver, on private business. May I take the liberty of asking you to walk a few yards with me?"
He had a half-jaded, half-irritated look, such as a man gets when he has been dogged by some care or annoyance that makes his bed and his dinner of little use to him. He spoke almost abruptly, as if his errand were too pressing for him to trouble himself about what would be thought by Mrs. Moss of his visit and request. Good Mrs. Moss, rather nervous in the presence of this apparently haughty gentleman, was inwardly wondering whether she would be doing right or wrong to invite him again to leave his horse and walk in, when Maggie, feeling all the embarrassment of the situation, and unable to say anything, put on her bonnet, and turned to walk toward the gate.
Stephen turned too, and walked by her side, leading his horse.
Not a word was spoken till they were out in the lane, and had walked four or five yards, when Maggie, who had been looking straight before her all the while, turned again to walk back, saying, with haughty resentment,–
"There is no need for me to go any farther. I don't know whether you consider it gentlemanly and delicate conduct to place me in a position that forced me to come out with you, or whether you wished to insult me still further by thrusting an interview upon me in this way."
"Of course you are angry with me for coming," said Stephen, bitterly. "Of course it is of no consequence what a man has to suffer; it is only your woman's dignity that you care about."
Maggie gave a slight start, such as might have come from the slightest possible electric shock.
"As if it were not enough that I'm entangled in this way; that I'm mad with love for you; that I resist the strongest passion a man can feel, because I try to be true to other claims; but you must treat me as if I were a coarse brute, who would willingly offend you. And when, if I had my own choice, I should ask you to take my hand and my fortune and my whole life, and do what you liked with them! I know I forgot myself. I took an unwarrantable liberty. I hate myself for having done it. But I repented immediately; I've been repenting ever since. You ought not to think it unpardonable; a man who loves with his whole soul, as I do you, is liable to be mastered by his feelings for a moment; but you know–you must believe–that the worst pain I could have is to have pained you; that I would give the world to recall the error."
Maggie dared not speak, dared not turn her head. The strength that had come from resentment was all gone, and her lips were quivering visibly. She could not trust herself to utter the full forgiveness that rose in answer to that confession.
They were come nearly in front of the gate again, and she paused, trembling.
"You must not say these things; I must not hear them," she said, looking down in misery, as Stephen came in front of her, to prevent her from going farther toward the gate. "I'm very sorry for any pain you have to go through; but it is of no use to speak."
"Yes, it is of use," said Stephen, impetuously. "It would be of use if you would treat me with some sort of pity and consideration, instead of doing me vile injustice in your mind. I could bear everything more quietly if I knew you didn't hate me for an insolent coxcomb. Look at me; see what a hunted devil I am; I've been riding thirty miles every day to get away from the thought of you."
Maggie did not–dared not–look. She had already seen the harassed face. But she said gently,–
"I don't think any evil of you."
"Then, dearest, look at me," said Stephen, in deepest, tenderest tones of entreaty. "Don't go away from me yet. Give me a moment's happiness; make me feel you've forgiven me."
"Yes, I do forgive you," said Maggie, shaken by those tones, and all the more frightened at herself. "But pray let me go in again. Pray go away."
A great tear fell from under her lowered eyelids.
"I can't go away from you; I can't leave you," said Stephen, with still more passionate pleading. "I shall come back again if you send me away with this coldness; I can't answer for myself. But if you will go with me only a little way I can live on that. You see plainly enough that your anger has only made me ten times more unreasonable."
Maggie turned. But Tancred, the bay horse, began to make such spirited remonstrances against this frequent change of direction, that Stephen, catching sight of Willy Moss peeping through the gate, called out, "Here! just come and hold my horse for five minutes."
"Oh, no," said Maggie, hurriedly, "my aunt will think it so strange."
"Never mind," Stephen answered impatiently; "they don't know the people at St. Ogg's. Lead him up and down just here for five minutes," he added to Willy, who was now close to them; and then he turned to Maggie's side, and they walked on. It was clear that she must go on now.
"Take my arm," said Stephen, entreatingly; and she took it, feeling all the while as if she were sliding downward in a nightmare.
"There is no end to this misery," she began, struggling to repel the influence by speech. "It is wicked–base–ever allowing a word or look that Lucy–that others might not have seen. Think of Lucy."
"I do think of her–bless her. If I didn't––" Stephen had laid his hand on Maggie's that rested on his arm, and they both felt it difficult to speak.
"And I have other ties," Maggie went on, at last, with a desperate effort, "even if Lucy did not exist."
"You are engaged to Philip Wakem?" said Stephen, hastily. "Is it so?"
"I consider myself engaged to him; I don't mean to marry any one else."
Stephen was silent again until they had turned out of the sun into a side lane, all grassy and sheltered. Then he burst out impetuously,–
"It is unnatural, it is horrible. Maggie, if you loved me as I love you, we should throw everything else to the winds for the sake of belonging to each other. We should break all these mistaken ties that were made in blindness, and determine to marry each other."
"I would rather die than fall into that temptation," said Maggie, with deep, slow distinctness, all the gathered spiritual force of painful years coming to her aid in this extremity. She drew her arm from his as she spoke.
"Tell me, then, that you don't care for me," he said, almost violently. "Tell me that you love some one else better."
It darted through Maggie's mind that here was a mode of releasing herself from outward struggle,–to tell Stephen that her whole heart was Philip's. But her lips would not utter that, and she was silent.
"If you do love me, dearest," said Stephen, gently, taking her hand again and laying it within his arm, "it is better–it is right that we should marry each other. We can't help the pain it will give. It is come upon us without our seeking; it is natural; it has taken hold of me in spite of every effort I have made to resist it. God knows, I've been trying to be faithful to tacit engagements, and I've only made things worse; I'd better have given way at first."
Maggie was silent. If it were not wrong–if she were once convinced of that, and need no longer beat and struggle against this current, soft and yet strong as the summer stream!
"Say've s' dearest," said Stephen, leaning to look entreatingly in her face. "What could we care about in the whole world beside, if we belonged to each other?"
Her breath was on his face, his lips were very near hers, but there was a great dread dwelling in his love for her.
Her lips and eyelids quivered; she opened her eyes full on his for an instant, like a lovely wild animal timid and struggling under caresses, and then turned sharp round toward home again.
"And after all," he went on, in an impatient tone, trying to defeat his own scruples as well as hers, "I am breaking no positive engagement; if Lucy's affections had been withdrawn from me and given to some one else, I should have felt no right to assert a claim on her. If you are not absolutely pledged to Philip, we are neither of us bound."
"You don't believe that; it is not your real feeling," said Maggie, earnestly. "You feel, as I do, that the real tie lies in the feelings and expectations we have raised in other minds. Else all pledges might be broken, when there was no outward penalty. There would be no such thing as faithfulness."
Stephen was silent; he could not pursue that argument; the opposite conviction had wrought in him too strongly through his previous time of struggle. But it soon presented itself in a new form.
"The pledge can't be fulfilled," he said, with impetuous insistence. "It is unnatural; we can only pretend to give ourselves to any one else. There is wrong in that too; there may be misery in it for them as well as for us. Maggie, you must see that; you do see that."
He was looking eagerly at her face for the least sign of compliance; his large, firm, gentle grasp was on her hand. She was silent for a few moments, with her eyes fixed on the ground; then she drew a deep breath, and said, looking up at him with solemn sadness,–
"Oh, it is difficult,–life is very difficult! It seems right to me sometimes that we should follow our strongest feeling; but then, such feelings continually come across the ties that all our former life has made for us,–the ties that have made others dependent on us,–and would cut them in two. If life were quite easy and simple, as it might have been in Paradise, and we could always see that one being first toward whom–I mean, if life did not make duties for us before love comes, love would be a sign that two people ought to belong to each other. But I see–I feel it is not so now; there are things we must renounce in life; some of us must resign love. Many things are difficult and dark to me; but I see one thing quite clearly,–that I must not, cannot, seek my own happiness by sacrificing others. Love is natural; but surely pity and faithfulness and memory are natural too. And they would live in me still, and punish me if I did not obey them. I should be haunted by the suffering I had caused. Our love would be poisoned. Don't urge me; help me,–help me, because I love you."
Maggie had become more and more earnest as she went on; her face had become flushed, and her eyes fuller and fuller of appealing love. Stephen had the fibre of nobleness in him that vibrated to her appeal; but in the same moment–how could it be otherwise?–that pleading beauty gained new power over him.
"Dearest," he said, in scarcely more than a whisper, while his arm stole round her, "I'll do, I'll bear anything you wish. But–one kiss–one–the last–before we part."
One kiss, and then a long look, until Maggie said tremulously, "Let me go,–let me make haste back."
She hurried along, and not another word was spoken. Stephen stood still and beckoned when they came within sight of Willy and the horse, and Maggie went on through the gate. Mrs. Moss was standing alone at the door of the old porch; she had sent all the cousins in, with kind thoughtfulness. It might be a joyful thing that Maggie had a rich and handsome lover, but she would naturally feel embarrassed at coming in again; and it might not be joyful. In either case Mrs. Moss waited anxiously to receive Maggie by herself. The speaking face told plainly enough that, if there was joy, it was of a very agitating, dubious sort.
"Sit down here a bit, my dear." She drew Maggie into the porch, and sat down on the bench by her; there was no privacy in the house.
"Oh, aunt Gritty, I'm very wretched! I wish I could have died when I was fifteen. It seemed so easy to give things up then; it is so hard now."
The poor child threw her arms round her aunt's neck, and fell into long, deep sobs.
A Family Party
Maggie left her good aunt Gritty at the end of the week, and went to Garum Firs to pay her visit to aunt Pullet according to agreement. In the mean time very unexpected things had happened, and there was to be a family party at Garum to discuss and celebrate a change in the fortunes of the Tullivers, which was likely finally to carry away the shadow of their demerits like the last limb of an eclipse, and cause their hitherto obscured virtues to shine forth in full-rounded splendor. It is pleasant to know that a new ministry just come into office are not the only fellow-men who enjoy a period of high appreciation and full-blown eulogy; in many respectable families throughout this realm, relatives becoming creditable meet with a similar cordiality of recognition, which in its fine freedom from the coercion of any antecedents, suggests the hopeful possibility that we may some day without any notice find ourselves in full millennium, with cockatrices who have ceased to bite, and wolves that no longer show their teeth with any but the blandest intentions.
Lucy came so early as to have the start even of aunt Glegg; for she longed to have some undisturbed talk with Maggie about the wonderful news. It seemed, did it not? said Lucy, with her prettiest air of wisdom, as if everything, even other people's misfortunes (poor creatures!) were conspiring now to make poor dear aunt Tulliver, and cousin Tom, and naughty Maggie too, if she were not obstinately bent on the contrary, as happy as they deserved to be after all their troubles. To think that the very day–the very day–after Tom had come back from Newcastle, that unfortunate young Jetsome, whom Mr. Wakem had placed at the Mill, had been pitched off his horse in a drunken fit, and was lying at St. Ogg's in a dangerous state, so that Wakem had signified his wish that the new purchasers should enter on the premises at once!
It was very dreadful for that unhappy young man, but it did seem as if the misfortune had happened then, rather than at any other time, in order that cousin Tom might all the sooner have the fit reward of his exemplary conduct,–papa thought so very highly of him. Aunt Tulliver must certainly go to the Mill now, and keep house for Tom; that was rather a loss to Lucy in the matter of household comfort; but then, to think of poor aunty being in her old place again, and gradually getting comforts about her there!
On this last point Lucy had her cunning projects, and when she and Maggie had made their dangerous way down the bright stairs into the handsome parlor, where the very sunbeams seemed cleaner than elsewhere, she directed her manœuvres, as any other great tactician would have done, against the weaker side of the enemy.
"Aunt Pullet," she said, seating herself on the sofa, and caressingly adjusting that lady's floating cap-string, "I want you to make up your mind what linen and things you will give Tom toward housekeeping; because you are always so generous,–you give such nice things, you know; and if you set the example, aunt Glegg will follow."
"That she never can, my dear," said Mrs. Pullet, with unusual vigor, "for she hasn't got the linen to follow suit wi' mine, I can tell you. She'd niver the taste, not if she'd spend the money. Big checks and live things, like stags and foxes, all her table-linen is,–not a spot nor a diamond among 'em. But it's poor work dividing one's linen before one dies,–I niver thought to ha' done that, Bessy," Mrs. Pullet continued, shaking her head and looking at her sister Tulliver, "when you and me chose the double diamont, the first flax iver we'd spun, and the Lord knows where yours is gone."
"I'd no choice, I'm sure, sister," said poor Mrs. Tulliver, accustomed to consider herself in the light of an accused person. "I'm sure it was no wish o' mine, iver, as I should lie awake o' nights thinking o' my best bleached linen all over the country."
"Take a peppermint, Mrs. Tulliver," said uncle Pullet, feeling that he was offering a cheap and wholesome form of comfort, which he was recommending by example.
"Oh, but, aunt Pullet," said Lucy, "you've so much beautiful linen. And suppose you had had daughters! Then you must have divided it when they were married."
"Well, I don't say as I won't do it," said Mrs. Pullet, "for now Tom's so lucky, it's nothing but right his friends should look on him and help him. There's the tablecloths I bought at your sale, Bessy; it was nothing but good natur' o' me to buy 'em, for they've been lying in the chest ever since. But I'm not going to give Maggie any more o' my Indy muslin and things, if she's to go into service again, when she might stay and keep me company, and do my sewing for me, if she wasn't wanted at her brother's."
"Going into service" was the expression by which the Dodson mind represented to itself the position of teacher or governess; and Maggie's return to that menial condition, now circumstances offered her more eligible prospects, was likely to be a sore point with all her relatives, besides Lucy. Maggie in her crude form, with her hair down her back, and altogether in a state of dubious promise, was a most undesirable niece; but now she was capable of being at once ornamental and useful. The subject was revived in aunt and uncle Glegg's presence, over the tea and muffins.
"Hegh, hegh!" said Mr. Glegg, good-naturedly patting Maggie on the back, "nonsense, nonsense! Don't let us hear of you taking a place again, Maggie. Why, you must ha' picked up half-a-dozen sweethearts at the bazaar; isn't there one of'em the right sort of article? Come, now?"
"Mr. Glegg," said his wife, with that shade of increased politeness in her severity which she always put on with her crisper fronts, "you'll excuse me, but you're far too light for a man of your years. It's respect and duty to her aunts, and the rest of her kin as are so good to her, should have kept my niece from fixing about going away again without consulting us; not sweethearts, if I'm to use such a word, though it was never heared in my family."
"Why, what did they call us, when we went to see 'em, then, eh, neighbor Pullet? They thought us sweet enough then," said Mr. Glegg, winking pleasantly; while Mr. Pullet, at the suggestion of sweetness, took a little more sugar.
"Mr. Glegg," said Mrs. G., "if you're going to be undelicate, let me know."
"La, Jane, your husband's only joking," said Mrs. Pullet; "let him joke while he's got health and strength. There's poor Mr. Tilt got his mouth drawn all o' one side, and couldn't laugh if he was to try."
"I'll trouble you for the muffineer, then, Mr. Glegg," said Mrs. G., "if I may be so bold to interrupt your joking. Though it's other people must see the joke in a niece's putting a slight on her mother's eldest sister, as is the head o' the family; and only coming in and out on short visits, all the time she's been in the town, and then settling to go away without my knowledge,–as I'd laid caps out on purpose for her to make 'em up for me,–and me as have divided my money so equal––"
"Sister," Mrs. Tulliver broke in anxiously, "I'm sure Maggie never thought o' going away without staying at your house as well as the others. Not as it's my wish she should go away at all, but quite contrairy. I'm sure I'm innocent. I've said over and over again, 'My dear, you've no call to go away.' But there's ten days or a fortnight Maggie'll have before she's fixed to go; she can stay at your house just as well, and I'll step in when I can, and so will Lucy."
"Bessy," said Mrs. Glegg, "if you'd exercise a little more thought, you might know I should hardly think it was worth while to unpin a bed, and go to all that trouble now, just at the end o' the time, when our house isn't above a quarter of an hour's walk from Mr. Deane's. She can come the first thing in the morning, and go back the last at night, and be thankful she's got a good aunt so close to her to come and sit with. I know I should, when I was her age."
"La, Jane," said Mrs. Pullet, "it 'ud do your beds good to have somebody to sleep in 'em. There's that striped room smells dreadful mouldy, and the glass mildewed like anything. I'm sure I thought I should be struck with death when you took me in."
"Oh, there is Tom!" exclaimed Lucy, clapping her hands. "He's come on Sindbad, as I told him. I was afraid he was not going to keep his promise."
Maggie jumped up to kiss Tom as he entered, with strong feeling, at this first meeting since the prospect of returning to the Mill had been opened to him; and she kept his hand, leading him to the chair by her side. To have no cloud between herself and Tom was still a perpetual yearning in her, that had its root deeper than all change. He smiled at her very kindly this evening, and said, "Well, Magsie, how's aunt Moss?"
"Come, come, sir," said Mr. Glegg putting out his hand. "Why, you're such a big man, you carry all before you, it, seems. You're come into your luck a good deal earlier than us old folks did; but I wish you joy, I wish you joy. You'll get the Mill all for your own again some day, I'll be bound. You won't stop half-way up the hill."
"But I hope he'll bear in mind as it's his mother's family as he owes it to," said Mrs. Glegg. "If he hadn't had them to take after, he'd ha' been poorly off. There was never any failures, nor lawing, nor wastefulness in our family, nor dying without wills––"
"No, nor sudden deaths," said aunt Pullet; "allays the doctor called in. But Tom had the Dodson skin; I said that from the first. And I don't know what you mean to do, sister Glegg, but I mean to give him a tablecloth of all my three biggest sizes but one, besides sheets. I don't say what more I shall do; but that I shall do, and if I should die to-morrow, Mr. Pullet, you'll bear it in mind,–though you'll be blundering with the keys, and never remember as that on the third shelf o' the left-hand wardrobe, behind the night-caps with the broad ties,–not the narrow-frilled uns,–is the key of the drawer in the Blue Room, where the key o' the Blue Closet is. You'll make a mistake, and I shall niver be worthy to know it. You've a memory for my pills and draughts, wonderful,–I'll allays say that of you,–but you're lost among the keys." This gloomy prospect of the confusion that would ensue on her decease was very affecting to Mrs. Pullet.
"You carry it too far, Sophy,–that locking in and out," said Mrs. Glegg, in a tone of some disgust at this folly. "You go beyond your own family. There's nobody can say I don't lock up; but I do what's reasonable, and no more. And as for the linen, I shall look out what's serviceable, to make a present of to my nephey; I've got cloth as has never been whitened, better worth having than other people's fine holland; and I hope he'll lie down in it and think of his aunt."
Tom thanked Mrs. Glegg, but evaded any promise to meditate nightly on her virtues; and Mrs. Glegg effected a diversion for him by asking about Mr. Deane's intentions concerning steam.
Lucy had had her far-sighted views in begging Tom to come on Sindbad. It appeared, when it was time to go home, that the man-servant was to ride the horse, and cousin Tom was to drive home his mother and Lucy. "You must sit by yourself, aunty," said that contriving young lady, "because I must sit by Tom; I've a great deal to say to him."
In the eagerness of her affectionate anxiety for Maggie, Lucy could not persuade herself to defer a conversation about her with Tom, who, she thought, with such a cup of joy before him as this rapid fulfilment of his wish about the Mill, must become pliant and flexible. Her nature supplied her with no key to Tom's; and she was puzzled as well as pained to notice the unpleasant change on his countenance when she gave him the history of the way in which Philip had used his influence with his father. She had counted on this revelation as a great stroke of policy, which was to turn Tom's heart toward Philip at once, and, besides that, prove that the elder Wakem was ready to receive Maggie with all the honors of a daughter-in-law. Nothing was wanted, then, but for dear Tom, who always had that pleasant smile when he looked at cousin Lucy, to turn completely round, say the opposite of what he had always said before, and declare that he, for his part, was delighted that all the old grievances should be healed, and that Maggie should have Philip with all suitable despatch; in cousin Lucy's opinion nothing could be easier.
But to minds strongly marked by the positive and negative qualities that create severity,–strength of will, conscious rectitude of purpose, narrowness of imagination and intellect, great power of self-control, and a disposition to exert control over others,–prejudices come as the natural food of tendencies which can get no sustenance out of that complex, fragmentary, doubt-provoking knowledge which we call truth. Let a prejudice be bequeathed, carried in the air, adopted by hearsay, caught in through the eye,–however it may come, these minds will give it a habitation; it is something to assert strongly and bravely, something to fill up the void of spontaneous ideas, something to impose on others with the authority of conscious right; it is at once a staff and a baton. Every prejudice that will answer these purposes is self-evident. Our good, upright Tom Tulliver's mind was of this class; his inward criticism of his father's faults did not prevent him from adopting his father's prejudice; it was a prejudice against a man of lax principle and lax life, and it was a meeting-point for all the disappointed feelings of family and personal pride. Other feelings added their force to produce Tom's bitter repugnance to Philip, and to Maggie's union with him; and notwithstanding Lucy's power over her strong-willed cousin, she got nothing but a cold refusal ever to sanction such a marriage; "but of course Maggie could do as she liked,–she had declared her determination to be independent. For Tom's part, he held himself bound by his duty to his father's memory, and by every manly feeling, never to consent to any relation with the Wakems."
Thus, all that Lucy had effected by her zealous mediation was to fill Tom's mind with the expectation that Maggie's perverse resolve to go into a situation again would presently metamorphose itself, as her resolves were apt to do, into something equally perverse, but entirely different,–a marriage with Philip Wakem.
Borne Along by the Tide
In less than a week Maggie was at St. Ogg's again,–outwardly in much the same position as when her visit there had just begun. It was easy for her to fill her mornings apart from Lucy without any obvious effort; for she had her promised visits to pay to her aunt Glegg, and it was natural that she should give her mother more than usual of her companionship in these last weeks, especially as there were preparations to be thought of for Tom's housekeeping. But Lucy would hear of no pretext for her remaining away in the evenings; she must always come from aunt Glegg's before dinner,–"else what shall I have of you?" said Lucy, with a tearful pout that could not be resisted.
And Mr. Stephen Guest had unaccountably taken to dining at Mr. Deane's as often as possible, instead of avoiding that, as he used to do. At first he began his mornings with a resolution that he would not dine there, not even go in the evening, till Maggie was away. He had even devised a plan of starting off on a journey in this agreeable June weather; the headaches which he had constantly been alleging as a ground for stupidity and silence were a sufficient ostensible motive. But the journey was not taken, and by the fourth morning no distinct resolution was formed about the evenings; they were only foreseen as times when Maggie would still be present for a little while,–when one more touch, one more glance, might be snatched. For why not? There was nothing to conceal between them; they knew, they had confessed their love, and they had renounced each other; they were going to part. Honor and conscience were going to divide them; Maggie, with that appeal from her inmost soul, had decided it; but surely they might cast a lingering look at each other across the gulf, before they turned away never to look again till that strange light had forever faded out of their eyes.
Maggie, all this time, moved about with a quiescence and even torpor of manner, so contrasted with her usual fitful brightness and ardor, that Lucy would have had to seek some other cause for such a change, if she had not been convinced that the position in which Maggie stood between Philip and her brother, and the prospect of her self-imposed wearisome banishment, were quite enough to account for a large amount of depression. But under this torpor there was a fierce battle of emotions, such as Maggie in all her life of struggle had never known or foreboded; it seemed to her as if all the worst evil in her had lain in ambush till now, and had suddenly started up full-armed, with hideous, overpowering strength! There were moments in which a cruel selfishness seemed to be getting possession of her; why should not Lucy, why should not Philip, suffer? She had had to suffer through many years of her life; and who had renounced anything for her? And when something like that fulness of existence–love, wealth, ease, refinement, all that her nature craved–was brought within her reach, why was she to forego it, that another might have it,–another, who perhaps needed it less? But amidst all this new passionate tumult there were the old voices making themselves heard with rising power, till, from time to time, the tumult seemed quelled. Was that existence which tempted her the full existence she dreamed? Where, then, would be all the memories of early striving; all the deep pity for another's pain, which had been nurtured in her through years of affection and hardship; all the divine presentiment of something higher than mere personal enjoyment, which had made the sacredness of life? She might as well hope to enjoy walking by maiming her feet, as hope to enjoy an existence in which she set out by maiming the faith and sympathy that were the best organs of her soul. And then, if pain were so hard to her, what was it to others? "Ah, God! preserve me from inflicting–give me strength to bear it." How had she sunk into this struggle with a temptation that she would once have thought herself as secure from as from deliberate crime? When was that first hateful moment in which she had been conscious of a feeling that clashed with her truth, affection, and gratitude, and had not shaken it from her with horror, as if it had been a loathsome thing? And yet, since this strange, sweet, subduing influence did not, should not, conquer her,–since it was to remain simply her own suffering,–her mind was meeting Stephen's in that thought of his, that they might still snatch moments of mute confession before the parting came. For was not he suffering too? She saw it daily–saw it in the sickened look of fatigue with which, as soon as he was not compelled to exert himself, he relapsed into indifference toward everything but the possibility of watching her. Could she refuse sometimes to answer that beseeching look which she felt to be following her like a low murmur of love and pain? She refused it less and less, till at last the evening for them both was sometimes made of a moment's mutual gaze; they thought of it till it came, and when it had come, they thought of nothing else.
One other thing Stephen seemed now and then to care for, and that was to sing; it was a way of speaking to Maggie. Perhaps he was not distinctly conscious that he was impelled to it by a secret longing–running counter to all his self-confessed resolves–to deepen the hold he had on her. Watch your own speech, and notice how it is guided by your less conscious purposes, and you will understand that contradiction in Stephen.
Philip Wakem was a less frequent visitor, but he came occasionally in the evening, and it happened that he was there when Lucy said, as they sat out on the lawn, near sunset,–
"Now Maggie's tale of visits to aunt Glegg is completed, I mean that we shall go out boating every day until she goes. She has not had half enough boating because of these tiresome visits, and she likes it better than anything. Don't you, Maggie?"
"Better than any sort of locomotion, I hope you mean," said Philip, smiling at Maggie, who was lolling backward in a low garden-chair; "else she will be selling her soul to that ghostly boatman who haunts the Floss, only for the sake of being drifted in a boat forever."
"Should you like to be her boatman?" said Lucy. "Because, if you would, you can come with us and take an oar. If the Floss were but a quiet lake instead of a river, we should be independent of any gentleman, for Maggie can row splendidly. As it is, we are reduced to ask services of knights and squires, who do not seem to offer them with great alacrity."
She looked playful reproach at Stephen, who was sauntering up and down, and was just singing in pianissimo falsetto,–
"The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine."
He took no notice, but still kept aloof; he had done so frequently during Philip's recent visits.
"You don't seem inclined for boating," said Lucy, when he came to sit down by her on the bench. "Doesn't rowing suit you now?"
"Oh, I hate a large party in a boat," he said, almost irritably. "I'll come when you have no one else."
Lucy colored, fearing that Philip would be hurt; it was quite a new thing for Stephen to speak in that way; but he had certainly not been well of late. Philip colored too, but less from a feeling of personal offence than from a vague suspicion that Stephen's moodiness had some relation to Maggie, who had started up from her chair as he spoke, and had walked toward the hedge of laurels to look at the descending sunlight on the river.
"As Miss Deane didn't know she was excluding others by inviting me," said Philip, "I am bound to resign."
"No, indeed, you shall not," said Lucy, much vexed. "I particularly wish for your company to-morrow. The tide will suit at half-past ten; it will be a delicious time for a couple of hours to row to Luckreth and walk back, before the sun gets too hot. And how can you object to four people in a boat?" she added, looking at Stephen.
"I don't object to the people, but the number," said Stephen, who had recovered himself, and was rather ashamed of his rudeness. "If I voted for a fourth at all, of course it would be you, Phil. But we won't divide the pleasure of escorting the ladies; we'll take it alternately. I'll go the next day."
This incident had the effect of drawing Philip's attention with freshened solicitude toward Stephen and Maggie; but when they re-entered the house, music was proposed, and Mrs. Tulliver and Mr. Deane being occupied with cribbage, Maggie sat apart near the table where the books and work were placed, doing nothing, however, but listening abstractedly to the music. Stephen presently turned to a duet which he insisted that Lucy and Philip should sing; he had often done the same thing before; but this evening Philip thought he divined some double intention in every word and look of Stephen's, and watched him keenly, angry with himself all the while for this clinging suspicion. For had not Maggie virtually denied any ground for his doubts on her side? And she was truth itself; it was impossible not to believe her word and glance when they had last spoken together in the garden. Stephen might be strongly fascinated by her (what was more natural?), but Philip felt himself rather base for intruding on what must be his friend's painful secret. Still he watched. Stephen, moving away from the piano, sauntered slowly toward the table near which Maggie sat, and turned over the newspapers, apparently in mere idleness. Then he seated himself with his back to the piano, dragging a newspaper under his elbow, and thrusting his hand through his hair, as if he had been attracted by some bit of local news in the "Laceham Courier." He was in reality looking at Maggie who had not taken the slightest notice of his approach. She had always additional strength of resistance when Philip was present, just as we can restrain our speech better in a spot that we feel to be hallowed. But at last she heard the word "dearest" uttered in the softest tone of pained entreaty, like that of a patient who asks for something that ought to have been given without asking. She had never heard that word since the moments in the lane at Basset, when it had come from Stephen again and again, almost as involuntarily as if it had been an inarticulate cry. Philip could hear no word, but he had moved to the opposite side of the piano, and could see Maggie start and blush, raise her eyes an instant toward Stephen's face, but immediately look apprehensively toward himself. It was not evident to her that Philip had observed her; but a pang of shame, under the sense of this concealment, made her move from her chair and walk to her mother's side to watch the game at cribbage.
Philip went home soon after in a state of hideous doubt mingled with wretched certainty. It was impossible for him now to resist the conviction that there was some mutual consciousness between Stephen and Maggie; and for half the night his irritable, susceptible nerves were pressed upon almost to frenzy by that one wretched fact; he could attempt no explanation that would reconcile it with her words and actions. When, at last, the need for belief in Maggie rose to its habitual predominance, he was not long in imagining the truth,–she was struggling, she was banishing herself; this was the clue to all he had seen since his return. But athwart that belief there came other possibilities that would not be driven out of sight. His imagination wrought out the whole story; Stephen was madly in love with her; he must have told her so; she had rejected him, and was hurrying away. But would he give her up, knowing–Philip felt the fact with heart-crushing despair–that she was made half helpless by her feeling toward him?
When the morning came, Philip was too ill to think of keeping his engagement to go in the boat. In his present agitation he could decide on nothing; he could only alternate between contradictory intentions. First, he thought he must have an interview with Maggie, and entreat her to confide in him; then, again, he distrusted his own interference. Had he not been thrusting himself on Maggie all along? She had uttered words long ago in her young ignorance; it was enough to make her hate him that these should be continually present with her as a bond. And had he any right to ask her for a revelation of feelings which she had evidently intended to withhold from him? He would not trust himself to see her, till he had assured himself that he could act from pure anxiety for her, and not from egoistic irritation. He wrote a brief note to Stephen, and sent it early by the servant, saying that he was not well enough to fulfil his engagement to Miss Deane. Would Stephen take his excuse, and fill his place?
Lucy had arranged a charming plan, which had made her quite content with Stephen's refusal to go in the boat. She discovered that her father was to drive to Lindum this morning at ten; Lindum was the very place she wanted to go to, to make purchases,–important purchases, which must by no means be put off to another opportunity; and aunt Tulliver must go too, because she was concerned in some of the purchases.
"You will have your row in the boat just the same, you know," she said to Maggie when they went out of the breakfast-room and upstairs together; "Philip will be here at half-past ten, and it is a delicious morning. Now don't say a word against it, you dear dolorous thing. What is the use of my being a fairy godmother, if you set your face against all the wonders I work for you? Don't think of awful cousin Tom; you may disobey him a little."
Maggie did not persist in objecting. She was almost glad of the plan, for perhaps it would bring her some strength and calmness to be alone with Philip again; it was like revisiting the scene of a quieter life, in which the very struggles were repose, compared with the daily tumult of the present. She prepared herself for the boat and at half-past ten sat waiting in the drawing-room.
The ring of the door-bell was punctual, and she was thinking with half-sad, affectionate pleasure of the surprise Philip would have in finding that he was to be with her alone, when she distinguished a firm, rapid step across the hall, that was certainly not Philip's; the door opened, and Stephen Guest entered.
In the first moment they were both too much agitated to speak; for Stephen had learned from the servant that the others were gone out. Maggie had started up and sat down again, with her heart beating violently; and Stephen, throwing down his cap and gloves, came and sat by her in silence. She thought Philip would be coming soon; and with great effort–for she trembled visibly–she rose to go to a distant chair.
"He is not coming," said Stephen, in a low tone. "I am going in the boat."
"Oh, we can't go," said Maggie, sinking into her chair again. "Lucy did not expect–she would be hurt. Why is not Philip come?"
"He is not well; he asked me to come instead."
"Lucy is gone to Lindum," said Maggie, taking off her bonnet with hurried, trembling fingers. "We must not go."
"Very well," said Stephen, dreamily, looking at her, as he rested his arm on the back of his chair. "Then we'll stay here."
He was looking into her deep, deep eyes, far off and mysterious at the starlit blackness, and yet very near, and timidly loving. Maggie sat perfectly still–perhaps for moments, perhaps for minutes–until the helpless trembling had ceased, and there was a warm glow on her check.
"The man is waiting; he has taken the cushions," she said. "Will you go and tell him?"
"What shall I tell him?" said Stephen, almost in a whisper. He was looking at the lips now.
Maggie made no answer.
"Let us go," Stephen murmured entreatingly, rising, and taking her hand to raise her too. "We shall not be long together."
And they went. Maggie felt that she was being led down the garden among the roses, being helped with firm, tender care into the boat, having the cushion and cloak arranged for her feet, and her parasol opened for her (which she had forgotten), all by this stronger presence that seemed to bear her along without any act of her own will, like the added self which comes with the sudden exalting influence of a strong tonic, and she felt nothing else. Memory was excluded.
They glided rapidly along, Stephen rowing, helped by the backward-flowing tide, past the Tofton trees and houses; on between the silent sunny fields and pastures, which seemed filled with a natural joy that had no reproach for theirs. The breath of the young, unwearied day, the delicious rhythmic dip of the oars, the fragmentary song of a passing bird heard now and then, as if it were only the overflowing of brimful gladness, the sweet solitude of a twofold consciousness that was mingled into one by that grave, untiring gaze which need not be averted,–what else could there be in their minds for the first hour? Some low, subdued, languid exclamation of love came from Stephen from time to time, as he went on rowing idly, half automatically; otherwise they spoke no word; for what could words have been but an inlet to thought? and thought did not belong to that enchanted haze in which they were enveloped,–it belonged to the past and the future that lay outside the haze. Maggie was only dimly conscious of the banks, as they passed them, and dwelt with no recognition on the villages; she knew there were several to be passed before they reached Luckreth, where they always stopped and left the boat. At all times she was so liable to fits of absence, that she was likely enough to let her waymarks pass unnoticed.
But at last Stephen, who had been rowing more and more idly, ceased to row, laid down the oars, folded his arms, and looked down on the water as if watching the pace at which the boat glided without his help. This sudden change roused Maggie. She looked at the far-stretching fields, at the banks close by, and felt that they were entirely strange to her. A terrible alarm took possession of her.
"Oh, have we passed Luckreth, where we were to stop?" she exclaimed, looking back to see if the place were out of sight. No village was to be seen. She turned around again, with a look of distressed questioning at Stephen.
He went on watching the water, and said, in a strange, dreamy, absent tone, "Yes, a long way."
"Oh, what shall I do?" cried Maggie, in an agony. "We shall not get home for hours, and Lucy? O God, help me!"
She clasped her hands and broke into a sob, like a frightened child; she thought of nothing but of meeting Lucy, and seeing her look of pained surprise and doubt, perhaps of just upbraiding.
Stephen moved and sat near her, and gently drew down the clasped hands.
"Maggie," he said, in a deep tone of slow decision, "let us never go home again, till no one can part us,–till we are married."
The unusual tone, the startling words, arrested Maggie's sob, and she sat quite still, wondering; as if Stephen might have seen some possibilities that would alter everything, and annul the wretched facts.
"See, Maggie, how everything has come without our seeking,–in spite of all our efforts. We never thought of being alone together again; it has all been done by others. See how the tide is carrying us out, away from all those unnatural bonds that we have been trying to make faster round us, and trying in vain. It will carry us on to Torby, and we can land there, and get some carriage, and hurry on to York and then to Scotland,–and never pause a moment till we are bound to each other, so that only death can part us. It is the only right thing, dearest; it is the only way of escaping from this wretched entanglement. Everything has concurred to point it out to us. We have contrived nothing, we have thought of nothing ourselves."
Stephen spoke with deep, earnest pleading. Maggie listened, passing from her startled wonderment to the yearning after that belief that the tide was doing it all, that she might glide along with the swift, silent stream, and not struggle any more. But across that stealing influence came the terrible shadow of past thoughts; and the sudden horror lest now, at last, the moment of fatal intoxication was close upon her, called up feelings of angry resistance toward Stephen.
"Let me go!" she said, in an agitated tone, flashing an indignant look at him, and trying to get her hands free. "You have wanted to deprive me of any choice. You knew we were come too far; you have dared to take advantage of my thoughtlessness. It is unmanly to bring me into such a position."
Stung by this reproach, he released her hands, moved back to his former place, and folded his arms, in a sort of desperation at the difficulty Maggie's words had made present to him. If she would not consent to go on, he must curse himself for the embarrassment he had led her into. But the reproach was the unendurable thing; the one thing worse than parting with her was, that she should feel he had acted unworthily toward her. At last he said, in a tone of suppressed rage,–
"I didn't notice that we had passed Luckreth till we had got to the next village; and then it came into my mind that we would go on. I can't justify it; I ought to have told you. It is enough to make you hate me, since you don't love me well enough to make everything else indifferent to you, as I do you. Shall I stop the boat and try to get you out here? I'll tell Lucy that I was mad, and that you hate me; and you shall be clear of me forever. No one can blame you, because I have behaved unpardonably to you."
Maggie was paralyzed; it was easier to resist Stephen's pleading than this picture he had called up of himself suffering while she was vindicated; easier even to turn away from his look of tenderness than from this look of angry misery, that seemed to place her in selfish isolation from him. He had called up a state of feeling in which the reasons which had acted on her conscience seemed to be transmitted into mere self-regard. The indignant fire in her eyes was quenched, and she began to look at him with timid distress. She had reproached him for being hurried into irrevocable trespass,–she, who had been so weak herself.
"As if I shouldn't feel what happened to you–just the same," she said, with reproach of another kind,–the reproach of love, asking for more trust. This yielding to the idea of Stephen's suffering was more fatal than the other yielding, because it was less distinguishable from that sense of others' claims which was the moral basis of her resistance.
He felt all the relenting in her look and tone; it was heaven opening again. He moved to her side, and took her hand, leaning his elbow on the back of the boat, and saying nothing. He dreaded to utter another word, he dreaded to make another movement, that might provoke another reproach or denial from her. Life hung on her consent; everything else was hopeless, confused, sickening misery. They glided along in this way, both resting in that silence as in a haven, both dreading lest their feelings should be divided again,–till they became aware that the clouds had gathered, and that the slightest perceptible freshening of the breeze was growing and growing, so that the whole character of the day was altered.
"You will be chill, Maggie, in this thin dress. Let me raise the cloak over your shoulders. Get up an instant, dearest."
Maggie obeyed; there was an unspeakable charm in being told what to do, and having everything decided for her. She sat down again covered with the cloak, and Stephen took to his oars again, making haste; for they must try to get to Torby as fast as they could. Maggie was hardly conscious of having said or done anything decisive. All yielding is attended with a less vivid consciousness than resistance; it is the partial sleep of thought; it is the submergence of our own personality by another. Every influence tended to lull her into acquiescence. That dreamy gliding in the boat which had lasted for four hours, and had brought some weariness and exhaustion; the recoil of her fatigued sensations from the impracticable difficulty of getting out of the boat at this unknown distance from home, and walking for long miles,–all helped to bring her into more complete subjection to that strong, mysterious charm which made a last parting from Stephen seem the death of all joy, and made the thought of wounding him like the first touch of the torturing iron before which resolution shrank. And then there was the present happiness of being with him, which was enough to absorb all her languid energy.
Presently Stephen observed a vessel coming after them. Several vessels, among them the steamer to Mudport, had passed them with the early tide, but for the last hour they had seen none. He looked more and more eagerly at this vessel, as if a new thought had come into his mind along with it, and then he looked at Maggie hesitatingly.
"Maggie, dearest," he said at last, "if this vessel should be going to Mudport, or to any convenient place on the coast northward, it would be our best plan to get them to take us on board. You are fatigued, and it may soon rain; it may be a wretched business, getting to Torby in this boat. It's only a trading vessel, but I dare say you can be made tolerably comfortable. We'll take the cushions out of the boat. It is really our best plan. They'll be glad enough to take us. I've got plenty of money about me. I can pay them well."
Maggie's heart began to beat with reawakened alarm at this new proposition; but she was silent,–one course seemed as difficult as another.
Stephen hailed the vessel. It was a Dutch vessel going to Mudport, the English mate informed him, and, if this wind held, would be there in less than two days.
"We had got out too far with our boat," said Stephen. "I was trying to make for Torby. But I'm afraid of the weather; and this lady–my wife–will be exhausted with fatigue and hunger. Take us on board–will you?–and haul up the boat. I'll pay you well."
Maggie, now really faint and trembling with fear, was t aken on board, making an interesting object of contemplation to admiring Dutchmen. The mate feared the lady would have a poor time of it on board, for they had no accommodation for such entirely unlooked-for passengers,–no private cabin larger than an old-fashioned church-pew. But at least they had Dutch cleanliness, which makes all other inconveniences tolerable; and the boat cushions were spread into a couch for Maggie on the poop with all alacrity. But to pace up and down the deck leaning on Stephen–being upheld by his strength–was the first change that she needed; then came food, and then quiet reclining on the cushions, with the sense that no new resolution could be taken that day. Everything must wait till to-morrow. Stephen sat beside her with her hand in his; they could only speak to each other in low tones; only look at each other now and then, for it would take a long while to dull the curiosity of the five men on board, and reduce these handsome young strangers to that minor degree of interest which belongs, in a sailor's regard, to all objects nearer than the horizon. But Stephen was triumphantly happy. Every other thought or care was thrown into unmarked perspective by the certainty that Maggie must be his. The leap had been taken now; he had been tortured by scruples, he had fought fiercely with overmastering inclination, he had hesitated; but repentance was impossible. He murmured forth in fragmentary sentences his happiness, his adoration, his tenderness, his belief that their life together must be heaven, that her presence with him would give rapture to every common day; that to satisfy her lightest wish was dearer to him than all other bliss; that everything was easy for her sake, except to part with her; and now they never would part; he would belong to her forever, and all that was his was hers,–had no value for him except as it was hers. Such things, uttered in low, broken tones by the one voice that has first stirred the fibre of young passion, have only a feeble effect–on experienced minds at a distance from them. To poor Maggie they were very near; they were like nectar held close to thirsty lips; there was, there must be, then, a life for mortals here below which was not hard and chill,–in which affection would no longer be self-sacrifice. Stephen's passionate words made the vision of such a life more fully present to her than it had ever been before; and the vision for the time excluded all realities,–all except the returning sun-gleams which broke out on the waters as the evening approached, and mingled with the visionary sunlight of promised happiness; all except the hand that pressed hers, and the voice that spoke to her, and the eyes that looked at her with grave, unspeakable love.
There was to be no rain, after all; the clouds rolled off to the horizon again, making the great purple rampart and long purple isles of that wondrous land which reveals itself to us when the sun goes down,–the land that the evening star watches over. Maggie was to sleep all night on the poop; it was better than going below; and she was covered with the warmest wrappings the ship could furnish. It was still early, when the fatigues of the day brought on a drowsy longing for perfect rest, and she laid down her head, looking at the faint, dying flush in the west, where the one golden lamp was getting brighter and brighter. Then she looked up at Stephen, who was still seated by her, hanging over her as he leaned his arm against the vessel's side. Behind all the delicious visions of these last hours, which had flowed over her like a soft stream, and made her entirely passive, there was the dim consciousness that the condition was a transient one, and that the morrow must bring back the old life of struggle; that there were thoughts which would presently avenge themselves for this oblivion. But now nothing was distinct to her; she was being lulled to sleep with that soft stream still flowing over her, with those delicious visions melting and fading like the wondrous aerial land of the west.
When Maggie was gone to sleep, Stephen, weary too with his unaccustomed amount of rowing, and with the intense inward life of the last twelve hours, but too restless to sleep, walked and lounged about the deck with his cigar far on into midnight, not seeing the dark water, hardly conscious there were stars, living only in the near and distant future. At last fatigue conquered restlessness, and he rolled himself up in a piece of tarpaulin on the deck near Maggie's feet.
She had fallen asleep before nine, and had been sleeping for six hours before the faintest hint of a midsummer daybreak was discernible. She awoke from that vivid dreaming which makes the margin of our deeper rest. She was in a boat on the wide water with Stephen, and in the gathering darkness something like a star appeared, that grew and grew till they saw it was the Virgin seated in St. Ogg's boat, and it came nearer and nearer, till they saw the Virgin was Lucy and the boatman was Philip,–no, not Philip, but her brother, who rowed past without looking at her; and she rose to stretch out her arms and call to him, and their own boat turned over with the movement, and they began to sink, till with one spasm of dread she seemed to awake, and find she was a child again in the parlor at evening twilight, and Tom was not really angry. From the soothed sense of that false waking she passed to the real waking,–to the plash of water against the vessel, and the sound of a footstep on the deck, and the awful starlit sky. There was a moment of utter bewilderment before her mind could get disentangled from the confused web of dreams; but soon the whole terrible truth urged itself upon her. Stephen was not by her now; she was alone with her own memory and her own dread. The irrevocable wrong that must blot her life had been committed; she had brought sorrow into the lives of others,–into the lives that were knit up with hers by trust and love. The feeling of a few short weeks had hurried her into the sins her nature had most recoiled from,–breach of faith and cruel selfishness; she had rent the ties that had given meaning to duty, and had made herself an outlawed soul, with no guide but the wayward choice of her own passion. And where would that lead her? Where had it led her now? She had said she would rather die than fall into that temptation. She felt it now,–now that the consequences of such a fall had come before the outward act was completed. There was at least this fruit from all her years of striving after the highest and best,–that her soul though betrayed, beguiled, ensnared, could never deliberately consent to a choice of the lower. And a choice of what? O God! not a choice of joy, but of conscious cruelty and hardness; for could she ever cease to see before her Lucy and Philip, with their murdered trust and hopes? Her life with Stephen could have no sacredness; she must forever sink and wander vaguely, driven by uncertain impulse; for she had let go the clue of life,–that clue which once in the far-off years her young need had clutched so strongly. She had renounced all delights then, before she knew them, before they had come within her reach. Philip had been right when he told her that she knew nothing of renunciation; she had thought it was quiet ecstasy; she saw it face to face now,–that sad, patient, loving strength which holds the clue of life,–and saw that the thorns were forever pressing on its brow. The yesterday, which could never be revoked,–if she could have changed it now for any length of inward silent endurance, she would have bowed beneath that cross with a sense of rest.
Day break came and the reddening eastern light, while her past life was grasping her in this way, with that tightening clutch which comes in the last moments of possible rescue. She could see Stephen now lying on the deck still fast asleep, and with the sight of him there came a wave of anguish that found its way in a long-suppressed sob. The worst bitterness of parting–the thought that urged the sharpest inward cry for help–was the pain it must give to him. But surmounting everything was the horror at her own possible failure, the dread lest her conscience should be benumbed again, and not rise to energy till it was too late. Too late! it was too late already not to have caused misery; too late for everything, perhaps, but to rush away from the last act of baseness,–the tasting of joys that were wrung from crushed hearts.
The sun was rising now, and Maggie started up with the sense that a day of resistance was beginning for her. Her eyelashes were still wet with tears, as, with her shawl over her head, she sat looking at the slowly rounding sun. Something roused Stephen too, and getting up from his hard bed, he came to sit beside her. The sharp instinct of anxious love saw something to give him alarm in the very first glance. He had a hovering dread of some resistance in Maggie's nature that he would be unable to overcome. He had the uneasy consciousness that he had robbed her of perfect freedom yesterday; there was too much native honor in him, for him not to feel that, if her will should recoil, his conduct would have been odious, and she would have a right to reproach him.
But Maggie did not feel that right; she was too conscious of fatal weakness in herself, too full of the tenderness that comes with the foreseen need for inflicting a wound. She let him take her hand when he came to sit down beside her, and smiled at him, only with rather a sad glance; she could say nothing to pain him till the moment of possible parting was nearer. And so they drank their cup of coffee together, and walked about the deck, and heard the captain's assurance that they should be in at Mudport by five o'clock, each with an inward burthen; but in him it was an undefined fear, which he trusted to the coming hours to dissipate; in her it was a definite resolve on which she was trying silently to tighten her hold. Stephen was continually, through the morning, expressing his anxiety at the fatigue and discomfort she was suffering, and alluded to landing and to the change of motion and repose she would have in a carriage, wanting to assure himself more completely by presupposing that everything would be as he had arranged it. For a long while Maggie contented herself with assuring him that she had had a good night's rest, and that she didn't mind about being on the vessel,–it was not like being on the open sea, it was only a little less pleasant than being in a boat on the Floss. But a suppressed resolve will betray itself in the eyes, and Stephen became more and more uneasy as the day advanced, under the sense that Maggie had entirely lost her passiveness. He longed, but did not dare, to speak of their marriage, of where they would go after it, and the steps he would take to inform his father, and the rest, of what had happened. He longed to assure himself of a tacit assent from her. But each time he looked at her, he gathered a stronger dread of the new, quiet sadness with which she met his eyes. And they were more and more silent.
"Here we are in sight of Mudport," he said at last. "Now, dearest," he added, turning toward her with a look that was half beseeching, "the worst part of your fatigue is over. On the land we can command swiftness. In another hour and a half we shall be in a chaise together, and that will seem rest to you after this."
Maggie felt it was time to speak; it would only be unkind now to assent by silence. She spoke in the lowest tone, as he had done, but with distinct decision.
"We shall not be together; we shall have parted."
The blood rushed to Stephen's face.
"We shall not," he said. "I'll die first."
It was as he had dreaded–there was a struggle coming. But neither of them dared to say another word till the boat was let down, and they were taken to the landing-place. Here there was a cluster of gazers and passengers awaiting the departure of the steamboat to St. Ogg's. Maggie had a dim sense, when she had landed, and Stephen was hurrying her along on his arm, that some one had advanced toward her from that cluster as if he were coming to speak to her. But she was hurried along, and was indifferent to everything but the coming trial.
A porter guided them to the nearest inn and posting-house, and Stephen gave the order for the chaise as they passed through the yard. Maggie took no notice of this, and only said, "Ask them to show us into a room where we can sit down."
When they entered, Maggie did not sit down, and Stephen, whose face had a desperate determination in it, was about to ring the bell, when she said, in a firm voice,–
"I'm not going; we must part here."
"Maggie," he said, turning round toward her, and speaking in the tones of a man who feels a process of torture beginning, "do you mean to kill me? What is the use of it now? The whole thing is done."
"No, it is not done," said Maggie. "Too much is done,–more than we can ever remove the trace of. But I will go no farther. Don't try to prevail with me again. I couldn't choose yesterday."
What was he to do? He dared not go near her; her anger might leap out, and make a new barrier. He walked backward and forward in maddening perplexity.
"Maggie," he said at last, pausing before her, and speaking in a tone of imploring wretchedness, "have some pity–hear me–forgive me for what I did yesterday. I will obey you now; I will do nothing without your full consent. But don't blight our lives forever by a rash perversity that can answer no good purpose to any one, that can only create new evils. Sit down, dearest; wait–think what you are going to do. Don't treat me as if you couldn't trust me."
He had chosen the most effective appeal; but Maggie's will was fixed unswervingly on the coming wrench. She had made up her mind to suffer.
"We must not wait," she said, in a low but distinct voice; "we must part at once."
"We can't part, Maggie," said Stephen, more impetuously. "I can't bear it. What is the use of inflicting that misery on me? The blow–whatever it may have been–has been struck now. Will it help any one else that you should drive me mad?"
"I will not begin any future, even for you," said Maggie, tremulously, "with a deliberate consent to what ought not to have been. What I told you at Basset I feel now; I would rather have died than fall into this temptation. It would have been better if we had parted forever then. But we must part now."
"We will not part," Stephen burst out, instinctively placing his back against the door, forgetting everything he had said a few moments before; "I will not endure it. You'll make me desperate; I sha'n't know what I do."
Maggie trembled. She felt that the parting could not be effected suddenly. She must rely on a slower appeal to Stephen's better self; she must be prepared for a harder task than that of rushing away while resolution was fresh. She sat down. Stephen, watching her with that look of desperation which had come over him like a lurid light, approached slowly from the door, seated himself close beside her, and grasped her hand. Her heart beat like the heart of a frightened bird; but this direct opposition helped her. She felt her determination growing stronger.
"Remember what you felt weeks ago," she began, with beseeching earnestness; "remember what we both felt,–that we owed ourselves to others, and must conquer every inclination which could make us false to that debt. We have failed to keep our resolutions; but the wrong remains the same."
"No, it does not remain the same," said Stephen. "We have proved that it was impossible to keep our resolutions. We have proved that the feeling which draws us toward each other is too strong to be overcome. That natural law surmounts every other; we can't help what it clashes with."
"It is not so, Stephen; I'm quite sure that is wrong. I have tried to think it again and again; but I see, if we judged in that way, there would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty; we should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be formed on earth. If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment."
"But there are ties that can't be kept by mere resolution," said Stephen, starting up and walking about again. "What is outward faithfulness? Would they have thanked us for anything so hollow as constancy without love?"
Maggie did not answer immediately. She was undergoing an inward as well as an outward contest. At last she said, with a passionate assertion of her conviction, as much against herself as against him,–
"That seems right–at first; but when I look further, I'm sure it is not right. Faithfulness and constancy mean something else besides doing what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves. They mean renouncing whatever is opposed to the reliance others have in us,–whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us. If we–if I had been better, nobler, those claims would have been so strongly present with me,–I should have felt them pressing on my heart so continually, just as they do now in the moments when my conscience is awake,–that the opposite feeling would never have grown in me, as it has done; it would have been quenched at once, I should have prayed for help so earnestly, I should have rushed away as we rush from hideous danger. I feel no excuse for myself, none. I should never have failed toward Lucy and Philip as I have done, if I had not been weak, selfish, and hard,–able to think of their pain without a pain to myself that would have destroyed all temptation. Oh, what is Lucy feeling now? She believed in me–she loved me–she was so good to me. Think of her––"
Maggie's voice was getting choked as she uttered these last words.
"I can't think of her," said Stephen, stamping as if with pain. "I can think of nothing but you, Maggie. You demand of a man what is impossible. I felt that once; but I can't go back to it now. And where is the use of your thinking of it, except to torture me? You can't save them from pain now; you can only tear yourself from me, and make my life worthless to me. And even if we could go back, and both fulfil our engagements,–if that were possible now,–it would be hateful, horrible, to think of your ever being Philip's wife,–of your ever being the wife of a man you didn't love. We have both been rescued from a mistake."
A deep flush came over Maggie's face, and she couldn't speak. Stephen saw this. He sat down again, taking her hand in his, and looking at her with passionate entreaty.
"Maggie! Dearest! If you love me, you are mine. Who can have so great a claim on you as I have? My life is bound up in your love. There is nothing in the past that can annul our right to each other; it is the first time we have either of us loved with our whole heart and soul."
Maggie was still silent for a little while, looking down. Stephen was in a flutter of new hope; he was going to triumph. But she raised her eyes and met his with a glance that was filled with the anguish of regret, not with yielding.
"No, not with my whole heart and soul, Stephen," she said with timid resolution. "I have never consented to it with my whole mind. There are memories, and affections, and longings after perfect goodness, that have such a strong hold on me; they would never quit me for long; they would come back and be pain to me–repentance. I couldn't live in peace if I put the shadow of a wilful sin between myself and God. I have caused sorrow already–I know–I feel it; but I have never deliberately consented to it; I have never said, 'They shall suffer, that I may have joy.' It has never been my will to marry you; if you were to win consent from the momentary triumph of my feeling for you, you would not have my whole soul. If I could wake back again into the time before yesterday, I would choose to be true to my calmer affections, and live without the joy of love."
Stephen loosed her hand, and rising impatiently, walked up and down the room in suppressed rage.
"Good God!" he burst out at last, "what a miserable thing a woman's love is to a man's! I could commit crimes for you,–and you can balance and choose in that way. But you don't love me; if you had a tithe of the feeling for me that I have for you, it would be impossible to you to think for a moment of sacrificing me. But it weighs nothing with you that you are robbing me of my life's happiness."
Maggie pressed her fingers together almost convulsively as she held them clasped on her lap. A great terror was upon her, as if she were ever and anon seeing where she stood by great flashes of lightning, and then again stretched forth her hands in the darkness.
"No, I don't sacrifice you–I couldn't sacrifice you," she said, as soon as she could speak again; "but I can't believe in a good for you, that I feel, that we both feel, is a wrong toward others. We can't choose happiness either for ourselves or for another; we can't tell where that will lie. We can only choose whether we will indulge ourselves in the present moment, or whether we will renounce that, for the sake of obeying the divine voice within us,–for the sake of being true to all the motives that sanctify our lives. I know this belief is hard; it has slipped away from me again and again; but I have felt that if I let it go forever, I should have no light through the darkness of this life."
"But, Maggie," said Stephen, seating himself by her again, "is it possible you don't see that what happened yesterday has altered the whole position of things? What infatuation is it, what obstinate prepossession, that blinds you to that? It is too late to say what we might have done or what we ought to have done. Admitting the very worst view of what has been done, it is a fact we must act on now; our position is altered; the right course is no longer what it was before. We must accept our own actions and start afresh from them. Suppose we had been married yesterday? It is nearly the same thing. The effect on others would not have been different. It would only have made this difference to ourselves," Stephen added bitterly, "that you might have acknowledged then that your tie to me was stronger than to others."
Again a deep flush came over Maggie's face, and she was silent. Stephen thought again that he was beginning to prevail,–he had never yet believed that he should not prevail; there are possibilities which our minds shrink from too completely for us to fear them.
"Dearest," he said, in his deepest, tenderest tone, leaning toward her, and putting his arm round her, "you are mine now,–the world believes it; duty must spring out of that now.
"In a few hours you will be legally mine, and those who had claims on us will submit,–they will see that there was a force which declared against their claims."
Maggie's eyes opened wide in one terrified look at the face that was close to hers, and she started up, pale again.
"Oh, I can't do it," she said, in a voice almost of agony; "Stephen, don't ask me–don't urge me. I can't argue any longer,–I don't know what is wise; but my heart will not let me do it. I see,–I feel their trouble now; it is as if it were branded on my mind. I have suffered, and had no one to pity me; and now I have made others suffer. It would never leave me; it would embitter your love to me. I do care for Philip–in a different way; I remember all we said to each other; I know how he thought of me as the one promise of his life. He was given to me that I might make his lot less hard; and I have forsaken him. And Lucy–she has been deceived; she who trusted me more than any one. I cannot marry you; I cannot take a good for myself that has been wrung out of their misery. It is not the force that ought to rule us,–this that we feel for each other; it would rend me away from all that my past life has made dear and holy to me. I can't set out on a fresh life, and forget that; I must go back to it, and cling to it, else I shall feel as if there were nothing firm beneath my feet."
"Good God, Maggie!" said Stephen, rising too and grasping her arm, "you rave. How can you go back without marrying me? You don't know what will be said, dearest. You see nothing as it really is."
"Yes, I do. But they will believe me. I will confess everything. Lucy will believe me–she will forgive you, and–and–oh, some good will come by clinging to the right. Dear, dear Stephen, let me go!–don't drag me into deeper remorse. My whole soul has never consented; it does not consent now."
Stephen let go her arm, and sank back on his chair, half-stunned by despairing rage. He was silent a few moments, not looking at her; while her eyes were turned toward him yearningly, in alarm at this sudden change. At last he said, still without looking at her,–
"Go, then,–leave me; don't torture me any longer,–I can't bear it."
Involuntarily she leaned toward him and put out her hand to touch his. But he shrank from it as if it had been burning iron, and said again,–
Maggie was not conscious of a decision as she turned away from that gloomy averted face, and walked out of the room; it was like an automatic action that fulfils a forgotten intention. What came after? A sense of stairs descended as if in a dream, of flagstones, of a chaise and horses standing, then a street, and a turning into another street where a stage-coach was standing, taking in passengers, and the darting thought that that coach would take her away, perhaps toward home. But she could ask nothing yet; she only got into the coach.
Home–where her mother and brother were, Philip, Lucy, the scene of her very cares and trials–was the haven toward which her mind tended; the sanctuary where sacred relics lay, where she would be rescued from more falling. The thought of Stephen was like a horrible throbbing pain, which yet, as such pains do, seemed to urge all other thoughts into activity. But among her thoughts, what others would say and think of her conduct was hardly present. Love and deep pity and remorseful anguish left no room for that.
The coach was taking her to York, farther away from home; but she did not learn that until she was set down in the old city at midnight. It was no matter; she could sleep there, and start home the next day. She had her purse in her pocket, with all her money in it,–a bank-note and a sovereign; she had kept it in her pocket from forgetfulness, after going out to make purchases the day before yesterday.
Did she lie down in the gloomy bedroom of the old inn that night with her will bent unwaveringly on the path of penitent sacrifice? The great struggles of life are not so easy as that; the great problems of life are not so clear. In the darkness of that night she saw Stephen's face turned toward her in passionate, reproachful misery; she lived through again all the tremulous delights of his presence with her that made existence an easy floating in a stream of joy, instead of a quiet resolved endurance and effort. The love she had renounced came back upon her with a cruel charm; she felt herself opening her arms to receive it once more; and then it seemed to slip away and fade and vanish, leaving only the dying sound of a deep, thrilling voice that said, "Gone, forever gone."