The Final Rescue
The Return to the Mill
Between four and five o'clock on the afternoon of the fifth day from that on which Stephen and Maggie had left St. Ogg's, Tom Tulliver was standing on the gravel walk outside the old house at Dorlcote Mill. He was master there now; he had half fulfilled his father's dying wish, and by years of steady self-government and energetic work he had brought himself near to the attainment of more than the old respectability which had been the proud inheritance of the Dodsons and Tullivers.
But Tom's face, as he stood in the hot, still sunshine of that summer afternoon, had no gladness, no triumph in it. His mouth wore its bitterest expression, his severe brow its hardest and deepest fold, as he drew down his hat farther over his eyes to shelter them from the sun, and thrusting his hands deep into his pockets, began to walk up and down the gravel. No news of his sister had been heard since Bob Jakin had come back in the steamer from Mudport, and put an end to all improbable suppositions of an accident on the water by stating that he had seen her land from a vessel with Mr. Stephen Guest. Would the next news be that she was married,–or what? Probably that she was not married; Tom's mind was set to the expectation of the worst that could happen,–not death, but disgrace.
As he was walking with his back toward the entrance gate, and his face toward the rushing mill-stream, a tall, dark-eyed figure, that we know well, approached the gate, and paused to look at him with a fast-beating heart. Her brother was the human being of whom she had been most afraid from her childhood upward; afraid with that fear which springs in us when we love one who is inexorable, unbending, unmodifiable, with a mind that we can never mould ourselves upon, and yet that we cannot endure to alienate from us.
That deep-rooted fear was shaking Maggie now; but her mind was unswervingly bent on returning to her brother, as the natural refuge that had been given her. In her deep humiliation under the retrospect of her own weakness,–in her anguish at the injury she had inflicted,–she almost desired to endure the severity of Tom's reproof, to submit in patient silence to that harsh, disapproving judgment against which she had so often rebelled; it seemed no more than just to her now,–who was weaker than she was? She craved that outward help to her better purpose which would come from complete, submissive confession; from being in the presence of those whose looks and words would be a reflection of her own conscience.
Maggie had been kept on her bed at York for a day with that prostrating headache which was likely to follow on the terrible strain of the previous day and night. There was an expression of physical pain still about her brow and eyes, and her whole appearance, with her dress so long unchanged, was worn and distressed. She lifted the latch of the gate and walked in slowly. Tom did not hear the gate; he was just then close upon the roaring dam; but he presently turned, and lifting up his eyes, saw the figure whose worn look and loneliness seemed to him a confirmation of his worst conjectures. He paused, trembling and white with disgust and indignation.
Maggie paused too, three yards before him. She felt the hatred in his face, felt it rushing through her fibres; but she must speak.
"Tom," she began faintly, "I am come back to you,–I am come back home–for refuge–to tell you everything."
"You will find no home with me," he answered, with tremulous rage. "You have disgraced us all. You have disgraced my father's name. You have been a curse to your best friends. You have been base, deceitful; no motives are strong enough to restrain you. I wash my hands of you forever. You don't belong to me."
Their mother had come to the door now. She stood paralyzed by the double shock of seeing Maggie and hearing Tom's words.
"Tom," said Maggie, with more courage, "I am perhaps not so guilty as you believe me to be. I never meant to give way to my feelings. I struggled against them. I was carried too far in the boat to come back on Tuesday. I came back as soon as I could."
"I can't believe in you any more," said Tom, gradually passing from the tremulous excitement of the first moment to cold inflexibility. "You have been carrying on a clandestine relation with Stephen Guest,–as you did before with another. He went to see you at my aunt Moss's; you walked alone with him in the lanes; you must have behaved as no modest girl would have done to her cousin's lover, else that could never have happened. The people at Luckreth saw you pass; you passed all the other places; you knew what you were doing. You have been using Philip Wakem as a screen to deceive Lucy,–the kindest friend you ever had. Go and see the return you have made her. She's ill; unable to speak. My mother can't go near her, lest she should remind her of you."
Maggie was half stunned,–too heavily pressed upon by her anguish even to discern any difference between her actual guilt and her brother's accusations, still less to vindicate herself.
"Tom," she said, crushing her hands together under her cloak, in the effort to speak again, "whatever I have done, I repent it bitterly. I want to make amends. I will endure anything. I want to be kept from doing wrong again."
"What will keep you?" said Tom, with cruel bitterness. "Not religion; not your natural feelings of gratitude and honor. And he–he would deserve to be shot, if it were not––But you are ten times worse than he is. I loathe your character and your conduct. You struggled with your feelings, you say. Yes! I have had feelings to struggle with; but I conquered them. I have had a harder life than you have had; but I have found my comfort in doing my duty. But I will sanction no such character as yours; the world shall know that I feel the difference between right and wrong. If you are in want, I will provide for you; let my mother know. But you shall not come under my roof. It is enough that I have to bear the thought of your disgrace; the sight of you is hateful to me."
Slowly Maggie was turning away with despair in her heart. But the poor frightened mother's love leaped out now, stronger than all dread.
"My child! I'll go with you. You've got a mother."
Oh, the sweet rest of that embrace to the heart-stricken Maggie! More helpful than all wisdom is one draught of simple human pity that will not forsake us.
Tom turned and walked into the house.
"Come in, my child," Mrs. Tulliver whispered. "He'll let you stay and sleep in my bed. He won't deny that if I ask him."
"No, mother," said Maggie, in a low tone, like a moan. "I will never go in."
"Then wait for me outside. I'll get ready and come with you."
When his mother appeared with her bonnet on, Tom came out to her in the passage, and put money into her hands.
"My house is yours, mother, always," he said. "You will come and let me know everything you want; you will come back to me."
Poor Mrs. Tulliver took the money, too frightened to say anything. The only thing clear to her was the mother's instinct that she would go with her unhappy child.
Maggie was waiting outside the gate; she took her mother's hand and they walked a little way in silence.
"Mother," said Maggie, at last, "we will go to Luke's cottage. Luke will take me in. He was very good to me when I was a little girl."
"He's got no room for us, my dear, now; his wife's got so many children. I don't know where to go, if it isn't to one o' your aunts; and I hardly durst," said poor Mrs. Tulliver, quite destitute of mental resources in this extremity.
Maggie was silent a little while, and then said,–
"Let us go to Bob Jakin's, mother; his wife will have room for us, if they have no other lodger."
So they went on their way to St. Ogg's, to the old house by the river-side.
Bob himself was at home, with a heaviness at heart which resisted even the new joy and pride of possessing a two-months'-old baby, quite the liveliest of its age that had ever been born to prince or packman. He would perhaps not so thoroughly have understood all the dubiousness of Maggie's appearance with Mr. Stephen Guest on the quay at Mudport if he had not witnessed the effect it produced on Tom when he went to report it; and since then, the circumstances which in any case gave a disastrous character to her elopement had passed beyond the more polite circles of St. Ogg's, and had become matter of common talk, accessible to the grooms and errand-boys. So that when he opened the door and saw Maggie standing before him in her sorrow and weariness, he had no questions to ask except one which he dared only ask himself,–where was Mr. Stephen Guest? Bob, for his part, hoped he might be in the warmest department of an asylum understood to exist in the other world for gentlemen who are likely to be in fallen circumstances there.
The lodgings were vacant, and both Mrs. Jakin the larger and Mrs. Jakin the less were commanded to make all things comfortable for "the old Missis and the young Miss"; alas that she was still "Miss!" The ingenious Bob was sorely perplexed as to how this result could have come about; how Mr. Stephen Guest could have gone away from her, or could have let her go away from him, when he had the chance of keeping her with him. But he was silent, and would not allow his wife to ask him a question; would not present himself in the room, lest it should appear like intrusion and a wish to pry; having the same chivalry toward dark-eyed Maggie as in the days when he had bought her the memorable present of books.
But after a day or two Mrs. Tulliver was gone to the Mill again for a few hours to see to Tom's household matters. Maggie had wished this; after the first violent outburst of feeling which came as soon as she had no longer any active purpose to fulfil, she was less in need of her mother's presence; she even desired to be alone with her grief. But she had been solitary only a little while in the old sitting-room that looked on the river, when there came a tap at the door, and turning round her sad face as she said "Come in," she saw Bob enter, with the baby in his arms and Mumps at his heels.
"We'll go back, if it disturbs you, Miss," said Bob.
"No," said Maggie, in a low voice, wishing she could smile.
Bob, closing the door behind him, came and stood before her.
"You see, we've got a little un, Miss, and I want'd you to look at it, and take it in your arms, if you'd be so good. For we made free to name it after you, and it 'ud be better for your takin' a bit o' notice on it."
Maggie could not speak, but she put out her arms to receive the tiny baby, while Mumps snuffed at it anxiously, to ascertain that this transference was all right. Maggie's heart had swelled at this action and speech of Bob's; she knew well enough that it was a way he had chosen to show his sympathy and respect.
"Sit down, Bob," she said presently, and he sat down in silence, finding his tongue unmanageable in quite a new fashion, refusing to say what he wanted it to say.
"Bob," she said, after a few moments, looking down at the baby, and holding it anxiously, as if she feared it might slip from her mind and her fingers, "I have a favor to ask of you."
"Don't you speak so, Miss," said Bob, grasping the skin of Mumps's neck; "if there's anything I can do for you, I should look upon it as a day's earnings."
"I want you to go to Dr. Kenn's, and ask to speak to him, and tell him that I am here, and should be very grateful if he would come to me while my mother is away. She will not come back till evening."
"Eh, Miss, I'd do it in a minute,–it is but a step,–but Dr. Kenn's wife lies dead; she's to be buried to-morrow; died the day I come from Mudport. It's all the more pity she should ha' died just now, if you want him. I hardly like to go a-nigh him yet."
"Oh no, Bob," said Maggie, "we must let it be,–till after a few days, perhaps, when you hear that he is going about again. But perhaps he may be going out of town–to a distance," she added, with a new sense of despondency at this idea.
"Not he, Miss," said Bob. "He'll none go away. He isn't one o' them gentlefolks as go to cry at waterin'-places when their wives die; he's got summat else to do. He looks fine and sharp after the parish, he does. He christened the little un; an' he was at me to know what I did of a Sunday, as I didn't come to church. But I told him I was upo' the travel three parts o' the Sundays,–an' then I'm so used to bein' on my legs, I can't sit so long on end,–'an' lors, sir,' says I, 'a packman can do wi' a small 'lowance o' church; it tastes strong,' says I; 'there's no call to lay it on thick.' Eh, Miss, how good the little un is wi' you! It's like as if it knowed you; it partly does, I'll be bound,–like the birds know the mornin'."
Bob's tongue was now evidently loosed from its unwonted bondage, and might even be in danger of doing more work than was required of it. But the subjects on which he longed to be informed were so steep and difficult of approach, that his tongue was likely to run on along the level rather than to carry him on that unbeaten road. He felt this, and was silent again for a little while, ruminating much on the possible forms in which he might put a question. At last he said, in a more timid voice than usual,–
"Will you give me leave to ask you only one thing, Miss?"
Maggie was rather startled, but she answered, "Yes, Bob, if it is about myself–not about any one else."
"Well, Miss, it's this. Do you owe anybody a grudge?"
"No, not any one," said Maggie, looking up at him inquiringly. "Why?"
"Oh, lors, Miss," said Bob, pinching Mumps's neck harder than ever. "I wish you did, an' tell me; I'd leather him till I couldn't see–I would–an' the Justice might do what he liked to me arter."
"Oh, Bob," said Maggie, smiling faintly, "you're a very good friend to me. But I shouldn't like to punish any one, even if they'd done me wrong; I've done wrong myself too often."
This view of things was puzzling to Bob, and threw more obscurity than ever over what could possibly have happened between Stephen and Maggie. But further questions would have been too intrusive, even if he could have framed them suitably, and he was obliged to carry baby away again to an expectant mother.
"Happen you'd like Mumps for company, Miss," he said when he had taken the baby again. "He's rare company, Mumps is; he knows iverything, an' makes no bother about it. If I tell him, he'll lie before you an' watch you, as still,–just as he watches my pack. You'd better let me leave him a bit; he'll get fond on you. Lors, it's a fine thing to hev a dumb brute fond on you; it'll stick to you, an' make no jaw."
"Yes, do leave him, please," said Maggie. "I think I should like to have Mumps for a friend."
"Mumps, lie down there," said Bob, pointing to a place in front of Maggie, "and niver do you stir till you're spoke to."
Mumps lay down at once, and made no sign of restlessness when his master left the room.
St. Ogg's Passes Judgment
It was soon known throughout St. Ogg's that Miss Tulliver was come back; she had not, then, eloped in order to be married to Mr. Stephen Guest,–at all events, Mr. Stephen Guest had not married her; which came to the same thing, so far as her culpability was concerned. We judge others according to results; how else?–not knowing the process by which results are arrived at. If Miss Tulliver, after a few months of well-chosen travel, had returned as Mrs. Stephen Guest, with a post-marital trousseau, and all the advantages possessed even by the most unwelcome wife of an only son, public opinion, which at St. Ogg's, as else where, always knew what to think, would have judged in strict consistency with those results. Public opinion, in these cases, is always of the feminine gender,–not the world, but the world's wife; and she would have seen that two handsome young people–the gentleman of quite the first family in St. Ogg's–having found themselves in a false position, had been led into a course which, to say the least of it, was highly injudicious, and productive of sad pain and disappointment, especially to that sweet young thing, Miss Deane. Mr. Stephen Guest had certainly not behaved well; but then, young men were liable to those sudden infatuated attachments; and bad as it might seem in Mrs. Stephen Guest to admit the faintest advances from her cousin's lover (indeed it had been said that she was actually engaged to young Wakem,–old Wakem himself had mentioned it), still, she was very young,–"and a deformed young man, you know!–and young Guest so very fascinating; and, they say, he positively worships her (to be sure, that can't last!), and he ran away with her in the boat quite against her will, and what could she do? She couldn't come back then; no one would have spoken to her; and how very well that maize-colored satinette becomes her complexion! It seems as if the folds in front were quite come in; several of her dresses are made so,–they say he thinks nothing too handsome to buy for her. Poor Miss Deane! She is very pitiable; but then there was no positive engagement; and the air at the coast will do her good. After all, if young Guest felt no more for her than that it was better for her not to marry him. What a wonderful marriage for a girl like Miss Tulliver,–quite romantic? Why, young Guest will put up for the borough at the next election. Nothing like commerce nowadays! That young Wakem nearly went out of his mind; he always was rather queer; but he's gone abroad again to be out of the way,–quite the best thing for a deformed young man. Miss Unit declares she will never visit Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Guest,–such nonsense! pretending to be better than other people. Society couldn't be carried on if we inquired into private conduct in that way,–and Christianity tells us to think no evil,–and my belief is, that Miss Unit had no cards sent her."
But the results, we know, were not of a kind to warrant this extenuation of the past. Maggie had returned without a trousseau, without a husband,–in that degraded and outcast condition to which error is well known to lead; and the world's wife, with that fine instinct which is given her for the preservation of Society, saw at once that Miss Tulliver's conduct had been of the most aggravated kind. Could anything be more detestable? A girl so much indebted to her friends–whose mother as well as herself had received so much kindness from the Deanes–to lay the design of winning a young man's affections away from her own cousin, who had behaved like a sister to her! Winning his affections? That was not the phrase for such a girl as Miss Tulliver; it would have been more correct to say that she had been actuated by mere unwomanly boldness and unbridled passion. There was always something questionable about her. That connection with young Wakem, which, they said, had been carried on for years, looked very ill,–disgusting, in fact! But with a girl of that disposition! To the world's wife there had always been something in Miss Tulliver's very physique that a refined instinct felt to be prophetic of harm. As for poor Mr. Stephen Guest, he was rather pitiable than otherwise; a young man of five-and-twenty is not to be too severely judged in these cases,–he is really very much at the mercy of a designing, bold girl. And it was clear that he had given way in spite of himself: he had shaken her off as soon as he could; indeed, their having parted so soon looked very black indeed–for her. To be sure, he had written a letter, laying all the blame on himself, and telling the story in a romantic fashion so as to try and make her appear quite innocent; of course he would do that! But the refined instinct of the world's wife was not to be deceived; providentially!–else what would become of Society? Why, her own brother had turned her from his door; he had seen enough, you might be sure, before he would do that. A truly respectable young man, Mr. Tom Tulliver; quite likely to rise in the world! His sister's disgrace was naturally a heavy blow to him. It was to be hoped that she would go out of the neighborhood,–to America, or anywhere,–so as to purify the air of St. Ogg's from the stain of her presence, extremely dangerous to daughters there! No good could happen to her; it was only to be hoped she would repent, and that God would have mercy on her: He had not the care of society on His hands, as the world's wife had.
It required nearly a fortnight for fine instinct to assure itself of these inspirations; indeed, it was a whole week before Stephen's letter came, telling his father the facts, and adding that he was gone across to Holland,–had drawn upon the agent at Mudport for money,–was incapable of any resolution at present.
Maggie, all this while, was too entirely filled with a more agonizing anxiety to spend any thought on the view that was being taken of her conduct by the world of St. Ogg's; anxiety about Stephen, Lucy, Philip, beat on her poor heart in a hard, driving, ceaseless storm of mingled love, remorse, and pity. If she had thought of rejection and injustice at all, it would have seemed to her that they had done their worst; that she could hardly feel any stroke from them intolerable since the words she had heard from her brother's lips. Across all her anxiety for the loved and the injured, those words shot again and again, like a horrible pang that would have brought misery and dread even into a heaven of delights. The idea of ever recovering happiness never glimmered in her mind for a moment; it seemed as if every sensitive fibre in her were too entirely preoccupied by pain ever to vibrate again to another influence. Life stretched before her as one act of penitence; and all she craved, as she dwelt on her future lot, was something to guarantee her from more falling; her own weakness haunted her like a vision of hideous possibilities, that made no peace conceivable except such as lay in the sense of a sure refuge.
But she was not without practical intentions; the love of independence was too strong an inheritance and a habit for her not to remember that she must get her bread; and when other projects looked vague, she fell back on that of returning to her plain sewing, and so getting enough to pay for her lodging at Bob's. She meant to persuade her mother to return to the Mill by and by, and live with Tom again; and somehow or other she would maintain herself at St. Ogg's. Dr. Kenn would perhaps help her and advise her. She remembered his parting words at the bazaar. She remembered the momentary feeling of reliance that had sprung in her when he was talking with her, and she waited with yearning expectation for the opportunity of confiding everything to him. Her mother called every day at Mr. Deane's to learn how Lucy was; the report was always sad,–nothing had yet roused her from the feeble passivity which had come on with the first shock. But of Philip, Mrs. Tulliver had learned nothing; naturally, no one whom she met would speak to her about what related to her daughter. But at last she summoned courage to go and see sister Glegg, who of course would know everything, and had been even to see Tom at the Mill in Mrs. Tulliver's absence, though he had said nothing of what had passed on the occasion.
As soon as her mother was gone, Maggie put on her bonnet. She had resolved on walking to the Rectory and asking to see Dr. Kenn; he was in deep grief, but the grief of another does not jar upon us in such circumstances. It was the first time she had been beyond the door since her return; nevertheless her mind was so bent on the purpose of her walk, that the unpleasantness of meeting people on the way, and being stared at, did not occur to her. But she had no sooner passed beyond the narrower streets which she had to thread from Bob's dwelling, than she became aware of unusual glances cast at her; and this consciousness made her hurry along nervously, afraid to look to right or left. Presently, however, she came full on Mrs. and Miss Turnbull, old acquaintances of her family; they both looked at her strangely, and turned a little aside without speaking. All hard looks were pain to Maggie, but her self-reproach was too strong for resentment. No wonder they will not speak to me, she thought; they are very fond of Lucy. But now she knew that she was about to pass a group of gentlemen, who were standing at the door of the billiard-rooms, and she could not help seeing young Torry step out a little with his glass at his eye, and bow to her with that air of nonchalance which he might have bestowed on a friendly barmaid.
Maggie's pride was too intense for her not to feel that sting, even in the midst of her sorrow; and for the first time the thought took strong hold of her that she would have other obloquy cast on her besides that which was felt to be due to her breach of faith toward Lucy. But she was at the Rectory now; there, perhaps, she would find something else than retribution. Retribution may come from any voice; the hardest, cruelest, most imbruted urchin at the street-corner can inflict it; surely help and pity are rarer things, more needful for the righteous to bestow.
She was shown up at once, after being announced, into Dr. Kenn's study, where he sat amongst piled-up books, for which he had little appetite, leaning his cheek against the head of his youngest child, a girl of three. The child was sent away with the servant, and when the door was closed, Dr. Kenn said, placing a chair for Maggie,–
"I was coming to see you, Miss Tulliver; you have anticipated me; I am glad you did."
Maggie looked at him with her childlike directness as she had done at the bazaar, and said, "I want to tell you everything." But her eyes filled fast with tears as she said it, and all the pent-up excitement of her humiliating walk would have its vent before she could say more.
"Do tell me everything," Dr. Kenn said, with quiet kindness in his grave, firm voice. "Think of me as one to whom a long experience has been granted, which may enable him to help you."
In rather broken sentences, and with some effort at first, but soon with the greater ease that came from a sense of relief in the confidence, Maggie told the brief story of a struggle that must be the beginning of a long sorrow. Only the day before, Dr. Kenn had been made acquainted with the contents of Stephen's letter, and he had believed them at once, without the confirmation of Maggie's statement. That involuntary plaint of hers, "Oh, I must go," had remained with him as the sign that she was undergoing some inward conflict.
Maggie dwelt the longest on the feeling which had made her come back to her mother and brother, which made her cling to all the memories of the past. When she had ended, Dr. Kenn was silent for some minutes; there was a difficulty on his mind. He rose, and walked up and down the hearth with his hands behind him. At last he seated himself again, and said, looking at Maggie,–
"Your prompting to go to your nearest friends,–to remain where all the ties of your life have been formed,–is a true prompting, to which the Church in its original constitution and discipline responds, opening its arms to the penitent, watching over its children to the last; never abandoning them until they are hopelessly reprobate. And the Church ought to represent the feeling of the community, so that every parish should be a family knit together by Christian brotherhood under a spiritual father. But the ideas of discipline and Christian fraternity are entirely relaxed,–they can hardly be said to exist in the public mind; they hardly survive except in the partial, contradictory form they have taken in the narrow communities of schismatics; and if I were not supported by the firm faith that the Church must ultimately recover the full force of that constitution which is alone fitted to human needs, I should often lose heart at observing the want of fellowship and sense of mutual responsibility among my own flock. At present everything seems tending toward the relaxation of ties,–toward the substitution of wayward choice for the adherence to obligation, which has its roots in the past. Your conscience and your heart have given you true light on this point, Miss Tulliver; and I have said all this that you may know what my wish about you–what my advice to you–would be, if they sprang from my own feeling and opinion unmodified by counteracting circumstances."
Dr. Kenn paused a little while. There was an entire absence of effusive benevolence in his manner; there was something almost cold in the gravity of his look and voice. If Maggie had not known that his benevolence was persevering in proportion to its reserve, she might have been chilled and frightened. As it was, she listened expectantly, quite sure that there would be some effective help in his words. He went on.
"Your inexperience of the world, Miss Tulliver, prevents you from anticipating fully the very unjust conceptions that will probably be formed concerning your conduct,–conceptions which will have a baneful effect, even in spite of known evidence to disprove them."
"Oh, I do,–I begin to see," said Maggie, unable to repress this utterance of her recent pain. "I know I shall be insulted. I shall be thought worse than I am."
"You perhaps do not yet know," said Dr. Kenn, with a touch of more personal pity, "that a letter is come which ought to satisfy every one who has known anything of you, that you chose the steep and difficult path of a return to the right, at the moment when that return was most of all difficult."
"Oh, where is he?" said poor Maggie, with a flush and tremor that no presence could have hindered.
"He is gone abroad; he has written of all that passed to his father. He has vindicated you to the utmost; and I hope the communication of that letter to your cousin will have a beneficial effect on her."
Dr. Kenn waited for her to get calm again before he went on.
"That letter, as I said, ought to suffice to prevent false impressions concerning you. But I am bound to tell you, Miss Tulliver, that not only the experience of my whole life, but my observation within the last three days, makes me fear that there is hardly any evidence which will save you from the painful effect of false imputations. The persons who are the most incapable of a conscientious struggle such as yours are precisely those who will be likely to shrink from you, because they will not believe in your struggle. I fear your life here will be attended not only with much pain, but with many obstructions. For this reason–and for this only–I ask you to consider whether it will not perhaps be better for you to take a situation at a distance, according to your former intention. I will exert myself at once to obtain one for you."
"Oh, if I could but stop here!" said Maggie. "I have no heart to begin a strange life again. I should have no stay. I should feel like a lonely wanderer, cut off from the past. I have written to the lady who offered me a situation to excuse myself. If I remained here, I could perhaps atone in some way to Lucy–to others; I could convince them that I'm sorry. And," she added, with some of the old proud fire flashing out, "I will not go away because people say false things of me. They shall learn to retract them. If I must go away at last, because–because others wish it, I will not go now."
"Well," said Dr. Kenn, after some consideration, "if you determine on that, Miss Tulliver, you may rely on all the influence my position gives me. I am bound to aid and countenance you by the very duties of my office as a parish priest. I will add, that personally I have a deep interest in your peace of mind and welfare."
"The only thing I want is some occupation that will enable me to get my bread and be independent," said Maggie. "I shall not want much. I can go on lodging where I am."
"I must think over the subject maturely," said Dr. Kenn, "and in a few days I shall be better able to ascertain the general feeling. I shall come to see you; I shall bear you constantly in mind."
When Maggie had left him, Dr. Kenn stood ruminating with his hands behind him, and his eyes fixed on the carpet, under a painful sense of doubt and difficulty. The tone of Stephen's letter, which he had read, and the actual relations of all the persons concerned, forced upon him powerfully the idea of an ultimate marriage between Stephen and Maggie as the least evil; and the impossibility of their proximity in St. Ogg's on any other supposition, until after years of separation, threw an insurmountable prospective difficulty over Maggie's stay there. On the other hand, he entered with all the comprehension of a man who had known spiritual conflict, and lived through years of devoted service to his fellow-men, into that state of Maggie's heart and conscience which made the consent to the marriage a desecration to her; her conscience must not be tampered with; the principle on which she had acted was a safer guide than any balancing of consequences. His experience told him that intervention was too dubious a responsibility to be lightly incurred; the possible issue either of an endeavor to restore the former relations with Lucy and Philip, or of counselling submission to this irruption of a new feeling, was hidden in a darkness all the more impenetrable because each immediate step was clogged with evil.
The great problem of the shifting relation between passion and duty is clear to no man who is capable of apprehending it; the question whether the moment has come in which a man has fallen below the possibility of a renunciation that will carry any efficacy, and must accept the sway of a passion against which he had struggled as a trespass, is one for which we have no master-key that will fit all cases. The casuists have become a byword of reproach; but their perverted spirit of minute discrimination was the shadow of a truth to which eyes and hearts are too often fatally sealed,–the truth, that moral judgments must remain false and hollow, unless they are checked and enlightened by a perpetual reference to the special circumstances that mark the individual lot.
All people of broad, strong sense have an instinctive repugnance to the men of maxims; because such people early discern that the mysterious complexity of our life is not to be embraced by maxims, and that to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sort is to repress all the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy. And the man of maxims is the popular representative of the minds that are guided in their moral judgment solely by general rules, thinking that these will lead them to justice by a ready-made patent method, without the trouble of exerting patience, discrimination, impartiality,–without any care to assure themselves whether they have the insight that comes from a hardly earned estimate of temptation, or from a life vivid and intense enough to have created a wide fellow-feeling with all that is human.
Showing That Old Acquaintances Are Capable of Surprising Us
When Maggie was at home again, her mother brought her news of an unexpected line of conduct in aunt Glegg. As long as Maggie had not been heard of, Mrs. Glegg had half closed her shutters and drawn down her blinds. She felt assured that Maggie was drowned; that was far more probable than that her niece and legatee should have done anything to wound the family honor in the tenderest point. When at last she learned from Tom that Maggie had come home, and gathered from him what was her explanation of her absence, she burst forth in severe reproof of Tom for admitting the worst of his sister until he was compelled. If you were not to stand by your "kin" as long as there was a shred of honor attributable to them, pray what were you to stand by? Lightly to admit conduct in one of your own family that would force you to alter your will, had never been the way of the Dodsons; and though Mrs. Glegg had always augured ill of Maggie's future at a time when other people were perhaps less clear-sighted, yet fair play was a jewel, and it was not for her own friends to help to rob the girl of her fair fame, and to cast her out from family shelter to the scorn of the outer world, until she had become unequivocally a family disgrace. The circumstances were unprecedented in Mrs. Glegg's experience; nothing of that kind had happened among the Dodsons before; but it was a case in which her hereditary rectitude and personal strength of character found a common channel along with her fundamental ideas of clanship, as they did in her lifelong regard to equity in money matters. She quarrelled with Mr. Glegg, whose kindness, flowing entirely into compassion for Lucy, made him as hard in his judgment of Maggie as Mr. Deane himself was; and fuming against her sister Tulliver because she did not at once come to her for advice and help, shut herself up in her own room with Baxter's "Saints' Rest" from morning till night, denying herself to all visitors, till Mr. Glegg brought from Mr. Deane the news of Stephen's letter. Then Mrs. Glegg felt that she had adequate fighting-ground; then she laid aside Baxter, and was ready to meet all comers. While Mrs. Pullet could do nothing but shake her head and cry, and wish that cousin Abbot had died, or any number of funerals had happened rather than this, which had never happened before, so that there was no knowing how to act, and Mrs. Pullet could never enter St. Ogg's again, because "acquaintances" knew of it all, Mrs. Glegg only hoped that Mrs. Wooll, or any one else, would come to her with their false tales about her own niece, and she would know what to say to that ill-advised person!
Again she had a scene of remonstrance with Tom, all the more severe in proportion to the greater strength of her present position. But Tom, like other immovable things, seemed only the more rigidly fixed under that attempt to shake him. Poor Tom! he judged by what he had been able to see; and the judgment was painful enough to himself. He thought he had the demonstration of facts observed through years by his own eyes, which gave no warning of their imperfection, that Maggie's nature was utterly untrustworthy, and too strongly marked with evil tendencies to be safely treated with leniency. He would act on that demonstration at any cost; but the thought of it made his days bitter to him. Tom, like every one of us, was imprisoned within the limits of his own nature, and his education had simply glided over him, leaving a slight deposit of polish; if you are inclined to be severe on his severity, remember that the responsibility of tolerance lies with those who have the wider vision. There had arisen in Tom a repulsion toward Maggie that derived its very intensity from their early childish love in the time when they had clasped tiny fingers together, and their later sense of nearness in a common duty and a common sorrow; the sight of her, as he had told her, was hateful to him. In this branch of the Dodson family aunt Glegg found a stronger nature than her own; a nature in which family feeling had lost the character of clanship by taking on a doubly deep dye of personal pride.
Mrs. Glegg allowed that Maggie ought to be punished,–she was not a woman to deny that; she knew what conduct was,–but punished in proportion to the misdeeds proved against her, not to those which were cast upon her by people outside her own family who might wish to show that their own kin were better.
"Your aunt Glegg scolded me so as niver was, my dear," said poor Mrs. Tulliver, when she came back to Maggie, "as I didn't go to her before; she said it wasn't for her to come to me first. But she spoke like a sister, too; having she allays was, and hard to please,–oh dear!–but she's said the kindest word as has ever been spoke by you yet, my child. For she says, for all she's been so set again' having one extry in the house, and making extry spoons and things, and putting her about in her ways, you shall have a shelter in her house, if you'll go to her dutiful, and she'll uphold you against folks as say harm of you when they've no call. And I told her I thought you couldn't bear to see anybody but me, you were so beat down with trouble; but she said, 'I won't throw ill words at her; there's them out o' th' family 'ull be ready enough to do that. But I'll give her good advice; an' she must be humble.' It's wonderful o' Jane; for I'm sure she used to throw everything I did wrong at me,–if it was the raisin-wine as turned out bad, or the pies too hot, or whativer it was."
"Oh, mother," said poor Maggie, shrinking from the thought of all the contact her bruised mind would have to bear, "tell her I'm very grateful; I'll go to see her as soon as I can; but I can't see any one just yet, except Dr. Kenn. I've been to him,–he will advise me, and help me to get some occupation. I can't live with any one, or be dependent on them, tell aunt Glegg; I must get my own bread. But did you hear nothing of Philip–Philip Wakem? Have you never seen any one that has mentioned him?"
"No, my dear; but I've been to Lucy's, and I saw your uncle, and he says they got her to listen to the letter, and she took notice o' Miss Guest, and asked questions, and the doctor thinks she's on the turn to be better. What a world this is,–what trouble, oh dear! The law was the first beginning, and it's gone from bad to worse, all of a sudden, just when the luck seemed on the turn?" This was the first lamentation that Mrs. Tulliver had let slip to Maggie, but old habit had been revived by the interview with sister Glegg.
"My poor, poor mother!" Maggie burst out, cut to the heart with pity and compunction, and throwing her arms round her mother's neck; "I was always naughty and troublesome to you. And now you might have been happy if it hadn't been for me."
"Eh, my dear," said Mrs. Tulliver, leaning toward the warm young cheek; "I must put up wi' my children,–I shall never have no more; and if they bring me bad luck, I must be fond on it. There's nothing else much to be fond on, for my furnitur' went long ago. And you'd got to be very good once; I can't think how it's turned out the wrong way so!"
Still two or three more days passed, and Maggie heard nothing of Philip; anxiety about him was becoming her predominant trouble, and she summoned courage at last to inquire about him of Dr. Kenn, on his next visit to her. He did not even know if Philip was at home. The elder Wakem was made moody by an accumulation of annoyance; the disappointment in this young Jetsome, to whom, apparently, he was a good deal attached, had been followed close by the catastrophe to his son's hopes after he had done violence to his own strong feeling by conceding to them, and had incautiously mentioned this concession in St. Ogg's; and he was almost fierce in his brusqueness when any one asked him a question about his son.
But Philip could hardly have been ill, or it would have been known through the calling in of the medical man; it was probable that he was gone out of the town for a little while. Maggie sickened under this suspense, and her imagination began to live more and more persistently in what Philip was enduring. What did he believe about her?
At last Bob brought her a letter, without a postmark, directed in a hand which she knew familiarly in the letters of her own name,–a hand in which her name had been written long ago, in a pocket Shakespeare which she possessed. Her mother was in the room, and Maggie, in violent agitation, hurried upstairs that she might read the letter in solitude. She read it with a throbbing brow.
"Maggie,–I believe in you; I know you never meant to deceive me; I know you tried to keep faith to me and to all. I believed this before I had any other evidence of it than your own nature. The night after I last parted from you I suffered torments. I had seen what convinced me that you were not free; that there was another whose presence had a power over you which mine never possessed; but through all the suggestions–almost murderous suggestions–of rage and jealousy, my mind made its way to believe in your truthfulness. I was sure that you meant to cleave to me, as you had said; that you had rejected him; that you struggled to renounce him, for Lucy's sake and for mine. But I could see no issue that was not fatal for you; and that dread shut out the very thought of resignation. I foresaw that he would not relinquish you, and I believed then, as I believe now, that the strong attraction which drew you together proceeded only from one side of your characters, and belonged to that partial, divided action of our nature which makes half the tragedy of the human lot. I have felt the vibration of chords in your nature that I have continually felt the want of in his. But perhaps I am wrong; perhaps I feel about you as the artist does about the scene over which his soul has brooded with love; he would tremble to see it confided to other hands; he would never believe that it could bear for another all the meaning and the beauty it bears for him.
"I dared not trust myself to see you that morning; I was filled with selfish passion; I was shattered by a night of conscious delirium. I told you long ago that I had never been resigned even to the mediocrity of my powers; how could I be resigned to the loss of the one thing which had ever come to me on earth with the promise of such deep joy as would give a new and blessed meaning to the foregoing pain,–the promise of another self that would lift my aching affection into the divine rapture of an ever-springing, ever-satisfied want?
"But the miseries of that night had prepared me for what came before the next. It was no surprise to me. I was certain that he had prevailed on you to sacrifice everything to him, and I waited with equal certainty to hear of your marriage. I measured your love and his by my own. But I was wrong, Maggie. There is something stronger in you than your love for him.
"I will not tell you what I went through in that interval. But even in its utmost agony–even in those terrible throes that love must suffer before it can be disembodied of selfish desire–my love for you sufficed to withhold me from suicide, without the aid of any other motive. In the midst of my egoism, I yet could not bear to come like a death-shadow across the feast of your joy. I could not bear to forsake the world in which you still lived and might need me; it was part of the faith I had vowed to you,–to wait and endure. Maggie, that is a proof of what I write now to assure you of,–that no anguish I have had to bear on your account has been too heavy a price to pay for the new life into which I have entered in loving you. I want you to put aside all grief because of the grief you have caused me. I was nurtured in the sense of privation; I never expected happiness; and in knowing you, in loving you, I have had, and still have, what reconciles me to life. You have been to my affections what light, what color is to my eyes, what music is to the inward ear, you have raised a dim unrest into a vivid consciousness. The new life I have found in caring for your joy and sorrow more than for what is directly my own, has transformed the spirit of rebellious murmuring into that willing endurance which is the birth of strong sympathy. I think nothing but such complete and intense love could have initiated me into that enlarged life which grows and grows by appropriating the life of others; for before, I was always dragged back from it by ever-present painful self-consciousness. I even think sometimes that this gift of transferred life which has come to me in loving you, may be a new power to me.
"Then, dear one, in spite of all, you have been the blessing of my life. Let no self-reproach weigh on you because of me. It is I who should rather reproach myself for having urged my feelings upon you, and hurried you into words that you have felt as fetters. You meant to be true to those words; you have been true. I can measure your sacrifice by what I have known in only one half-hour of your presence with me, when I dreamed that you might love me best. But, Maggie, I have no just claim on you for more than affectionate remembrance.
"For some time I have shrunk from writing to you, because I have shrunk even from the appearance of wishing to thrust myself before you, and so repeating my original error. But you will not misconstrue me. I know that we must keep apart for a long while; cruel tongues would force us apart, if nothing else did. But I shall not go away. The place where you are is the one where my mind must live, wherever I might travel. And remember that I am unchangeably yours,–yours not with selfish wishes, but with a devotion that excludes such wishes.
"God comfort you, my loving, large-souled Maggie. If every one else has misconceived you, remember that you have never been doubted by him whose heart recognized you ten years ago.
"Do not believe any one who says I am ill, because I am not seen out of doors. I have only had nervous headaches,–no worse than I have sometimes had them before. But the overpowering heat inclines me to be perfectly quiescent in the daytime. I am strong enough to obey any word which shall tell me that I can serve you by word or deed.
"Yours to the last,
As Maggie knelt by the bed sobbing, with that letter pressed under her, her feelings again and again gathered themselves in a whispered cry, always in the same words,–
"O God, is there any happiness in love that could make me forget their pain?"
Maggie and Lucy
By the end of the week Dr. Kenn had made up his mind that there was only one way in which he could secure to Maggie a suitable living at St. Ogg's. Even with his twenty years' experience as a parish priest, he was aghast at the obstinate continuance of imputations against her in the face of evidence. Hitherto he had been rather more adored and appealed to than was quite agreeable to him; but now, in attempting to open the ears of women to reason, and their consciences to justice, on behalf of Maggie Tulliver, he suddenly found himself as powerless as he was aware he would have been if he had attempted to influence the shape of bonnets. Dr. Kenn could not be contradicted; he was listened to in silence; but when he left the room, a comparison of opinions among his hearers yielded much the same result as before. Miss Tulliver had undeniably acted in a blamable manner, even Dr. Kenn did not deny that; how, then, could he think so lightly of her as to put that favorable interpretation on everything she had done? Even on the supposition that required the utmost stretch of belief,–namely, that none of the things said about Miss Tulliver were true,–still, since they had been said about her, they had cast an odor round her which must cause her to be shrunk from by every woman who had to take care of her own reputation–and of Society. To have taken Maggie by the hand and said, "I will not believe unproved evil of you; my lips shall not utter it; my ears shall be closed against it; I, too, am an erring mortal, liable to stumble, apt to come short of my most earnest efforts; your lot has been harder than mine, your temptation greater; let us help each other to stand and walk without more falling,"–to have done this would have demanded courage, deep pity, self-knowledge, generous trust; would have demanded a mind that tasted no piquancy in evil-speaking, that felt no self-exaltation in condemning, that cheated itself with no large words into the belief that life can have any moral end, any high religion, which excludes the striving after perfect truth, justice, and love toward the individual men and women who come across our own path. The ladies of St. Ogg's were not beguiled by any wide speculative conceptions; but they had their favorite abstraction, called Society, which served to make their consciences perfectly easy in doing what satisfied their own egoism,–thinking and speaking the worst of Maggie Tulliver, and turning their backs upon her. It was naturally disappointing to Dr. Kenn, after two years of superfluous incense from his feminine parishioners, to find them suddenly maintaining their views in opposition to his; but then they maintained them in opposition to a higher Authority, which they had venerated longer. That Authority had furnished a very explicit answer to persons who might inquire where their social duties began, and might be inclined to take wide views as to the starting-point. The answer had not turned on the ultimate good of Society, but on "a certain man" who was found in trouble by the wayside.
Not that St. Ogg's was empty of women with some tenderness of heart and conscience; probably it had as fair a proportion of human goodness in it as any other small trading town of that day. But until every good man is brave, we must expect to find many good women timid,–too timid even to believe in the correctness of their own best promptings, when these would place them in a minority. And the men at St. Ogg's were not all brave, by any means; some of them were even fond of scandal, and to an extent that might have given their conversation an effeminate character, if it had not been distinguished by masculine jokes, and by an occasional shrug of the shoulders at the mutual hatred of women. It was the general feeling of the masculine mind at St. Ogg's that women were not to be interfered with in their treatment of each other.
And thus every direction in which Dr. Kenn had turned, in the hope of procuring some kind recognition and some employment for Maggie, proved a disappointment to him. Mrs. James Torry could not think of taking Maggie as a nursery governess, even temporarily,–a young woman about whom "such things had been said," and about whom "gentlemen joked"; and Miss Kirke, who had a spinal complaint, and wanted a reader and companion, felt quite sure that Maggie's mind must be of a quality with which she, for her part, could not risk any contact. Why did not Miss Tulliver accept the shelter offered her by her aunt Glegg? It did not become a girl like her to refuse it. Or else, why did she not go out of the neighborhood, and get a situation where she was not known? (It was not, apparently, of so much importance that she should carry her dangerous tendencies into strange families unknown at St. Ogg's.) She must be very bold and hardened to wish to stay in a parish where she was so much stared at and whispered about.
Dr. Kenn, having great natural firmness, began, in the presence of this opposition, as every firm man would have done, to contract a certain strength of determination over and above what would have been called forth by the end in view. He himself wanted a daily governess for his younger children; and though he had hesitated in the first instance to offer this position to Maggie, the resolution to protest with the utmost force of his personal and priestly character against her being crushed and driven away by slander, was now decisive. Maggie gratefully accepted an employment that gave her duties as well as a support; her days would be filled now, and solitary evenings would be a welcome rest. She no longer needed the sacrifice her mother made in staying with her, and Mrs. Tulliver was persuaded to go back to the Mill.
But now it began to be discovered that Dr. Kenn, exemplary as he had hitherto appeared, had his crotchets, possibly his weaknesses. The masculine mind of St. Ogg's smiled pleasantly, and did not wonder that Kenn liked to see a fine pair of eyes daily, or that he was inclined to take so lenient a view of the past; the feminine mind, regarded at that period as less powerful, took a more melancholy view of the case. If Dr. Kenn should be beguiled into marrying that Miss Tulliver! It was not safe to be too confident, even about the best of men; an apostle had fallen, and wept bitterly afterwards; and though Peter's denial was not a close precedent, his repentance was likely to be.
Maggie had not taken her daily walks to the Rectory for many weeks, before the dreadful possibility of her some time or other becoming the Rector's wife had been talked of so often in confidence, that ladies were beginning to discuss how they should behave to her in that position. For Dr. Kenn, it had been understood, had sat in the schoolroom half an hour one morning, when Miss Tulliver was giving her lessons,–nay, he had sat there every morning; he had once walked home with her,–he almost always walked home with her,–and if not, he went to see her in the evening. What an artful creature she was! What a mother for those children! It was enough to make poor Mrs. Kenn turn in her grave, that they should be put under the care of this girl only a few weeks after her death. Would he be so lost to propriety as to marry her before the year was out? The masculine mind was sarcastic, and thought not.
The Miss Guests saw an alleviation to the sorrow of witnessing a folly in their Rector; at least their brother would be safe; and their knowledge of Stephen's tenacity was a constant ground of alarm to them, lest he should come back and marry Maggie. They were not among those who disbelieved their brother's letter; but they had no confidence in Maggie's adherence to her renunciation of him; they suspected that she had shrunk rather from the elopement than from the marriage, and that she lingered in St. Ogg's, relying on his return to her. They had always thought her disagreeable; they now thought her artful and proud; having quite as good grounds for that judgment as you and I probably have for many strong opinions of the same kind. Formerly they had not altogether delighted in the contemplated match with Lucy, but now their dread of a marriage between Stephen and Maggie added its momentum to their genuine pity and indignation on behalf of the gentle forsaken girl, in making them desire that he should return to her. As soon as Lucy was able to leave home, she was to seek relief from the oppressive heat of this August by going to the coast with the Miss Guests; and it was in their plans that Stephen should be induced to join them. On the very first hint of gossip concerning Maggie and Dr. Kenn, the report was conveyed in Miss Guest's letter to her brother.
Maggie had frequent tidings through her mother, or aunt Glegg, or Dr. Kenn, of Lucy's gradual progress toward recovery, and her thoughts tended continually toward her uncle Deane's house; she hungered for an interview with Lucy, if it were only for five minutes, to utter a word of penitence, to be assured by Lucy's own eyes and lips that she did not believe in the willing treachery of those whom she had loved and trusted. But she knew that even if her uncle's indignation had not closed his house against her, the agitation of such an interview would have been forbidden to Lucy. Only to have seen her without speaking would have been some relief; for Maggie was haunted by a face cruel in its very gentleness; a face that had been turned on hers with glad, sweet looks of trust and love from the twilight time of memory; changed now to a sad and weary face by a first heart-stroke. And as the days passed on, that pale image became more and more distinct; the picture grew and grew into more speaking definiteness under the avenging hand of remorse; the soft hazel eyes, in their look of pain, were bent forever on Maggie, and pierced her the more because she could see no anger in them. But Lucy was not yet able to go to church, or any place where Maggie could see her; and even the hope of that departed, when the news was told her by aunt Glegg, that Lucy was really going away in a few days to Scarborough with the Miss Guests, who had been heard to say that they expected their brother to meet them there.
Only those who have known what hardest inward conflict is, can know what Maggie felt as she sat in her loneliness the evening after hearing that news from Mrs. Glegg,–only those who have known what it is to dread their own selfish desires as the watching mother would dread the sleeping-potion that was to still her own pain.
She sat without candle in the twilight, with the window wide open toward the river; the sense of oppressive heat adding itself undistinguishably to the burthen of her lot. Seated on a chair against the window, with her arm on the windowsill she was looking blankly at the flowing river, swift with the backward-rushing tide, struggling to see still the sweet face in its unreproaching sadness, that seemed now from moment to moment to sink away and be hidden behind a form that thrust itself between, and made darkness. Hearing the door open, she thought Mrs. Jakin was coming in with her supper, as usual; and with that repugnance to trivial speech which comes with languor and wretchedness, she shrank from turning round and saying she wanted nothing; good little Mrs. Jakin would be sure to make some well-meant remarks. But the next moment, without her having discerned the sound of a footstep, she felt a light hand on her shoulder, and heard a voice close to her saying, "Maggie!"
The face was there,–changed, but all the sweeter; the hazel eyes were there, with their heart-piercing tenderness.
"Maggie!" the soft voice said. "Lucy!" answered a voice with a sharp ring of anguish in it; and Lucy threw her arms round Maggie's neck, and leaned her pale cheek against the burning brow.
"I stole out," said Lucy, almost in a whisper, while she sat down close to Maggie and held her hand, "when papa and the rest were away. Alice is come with me. I asked her to help me. But I must only stay a little while, because it is so late."
It was easier to say that at first than to say anything else. They sat looking at each other. It seemed as if the interview must end without more speech, for speech was very difficult. Each felt that there would be something scorching in the words that would recall the irretrievable wrong. But soon, as Maggie looked, every distinct thought began to be overflowed by a wave of loving penitence, and words burst forth with a sob.
"God bless you for coming, Lucy."
The sobs came thick on each other after that.
"Maggie, dear, be comforted," said Lucy now, putting her cheek against Maggie's again. "Don't grieve." And she sat still, hoping to soothe Maggie with that gentle caress.
"I didn't mean to deceive you, Lucy," said Maggie, as soon as she could speak. "It always made me wretched that I felt what I didn't like you to know. It was because I thought it would all be conquered, and you might never see anything to wound you."
"I know, dear," said Lucy. "I know you never meant to make me unhappy. It is a trouble that has come on us all; you have more to bear than I have–and you gave him up, when–you did what it must have been very hard to do."
They were silent again a little while, sitting with clasped hands, and cheeks leaned together.
"Lucy," Maggie began again, "he struggled too. He wanted to be true to you. He will come back to you. Forgive him–he will be happy then––"
These words were wrung forth from Maggie's deepest soul, with an effort like the convulsed clutch of a drowning man. Lucy trembled and was silent.
A gentle knock came at the door. It was Alice, the maid, who entered and said,–
"I daren't stay any longer, Miss Deane. They'll find it out, and there'll be such anger at your coming out so late."
Lucy rose and said, "Very well, Alice,–in a minute."
"I'm to go away on Friday, Maggie," she added, when Alice had closed the door again. "When I come back, and am strong, they will let me do as I like. I shall come to you when I please then."
"Lucy," said Maggie, with another great effort, "I pray to God continually that I may never be the cause of sorrow to you any more."
She pressed the little hand that she held between hers, and looked up into the face that was bent over hers. Lucy never forgot that look.
"Maggie," she said, in a low voice, that had the solemnity of confession in it, "you are better than I am. I can't––"
She broke off there, and said no more. But they clasped each other again in a last embrace.
The Last Conflict
In the second week of September, Maggie was again sitting in her lonely room, battling with the old shadowy enemies that were forever slain and rising again. It was past midnight, and the rain was beating heavily against the window, driven with fitful force by the rushing, loud-moaning wind. For the day after Lucy's visit there had been a sudden change in the weather; the heat and drought had given way to cold variable winds, and heavy falls of rain at intervals; and she had been forbidden to risk the contemplated journey until the weather should become more settled. In the counties higher up the Floss the rains had been continuous, and the completion of the harvest had been arrested. And now, for the last two days, the rains on this lower course of the river had been incessant, so that the old men had shaken their heads and talked of sixty years ago, when the same sort of weather, happening about the equinox, brought on the great floods, which swept the bridge away, and reduced the town to great misery. But the younger generation, who had seen several small floods, thought lightly of these sombre recollections and forebodings; and Bob Jakin, naturally prone to take a hopeful view of his own luck, laughed at his mother when she regretted their having taken a house by the riverside, observing that but for that they would have had no boats, which were the most lucky of possessions in case of a flood that obliged them to go to a distance for food.
But the careless and the fearful were alike sleeping in their beds now. There was hope that the rain would abate by the morrow; threatenings of a worse kind, from sudden thaws after falls of snow, had often passed off, in the experience of the younger ones; and at the very worst, the banks would be sure to break lower down the river when the tide came in with violence, and so the waters would be carried off, without causing more than temporary inconvenience, and losses that would be felt only by the poorer sort, whom charity would relieve.
All were in their beds now, for it was past midnight; all except some solitary watchers such as Maggie. She was seated in her little parlor toward the river, with one candle, that left everything dim in the room except a letter which lay before her on the table. That letter, which had come to her to-day, was one of the causes that had kept her up far on into the night, unconscious how the hours were going, careless of seeking rest, with no image of rest coming across her mind, except of that far, far off rest from which there would be no more waking for her into this struggling earthly life.
Two days before Maggie received that letter, she had been to the Rectory for the last time. The heavy rain would have prevented her from going since; but there was another reason. Dr. Kenn, at first enlightened only by a few hints as to the new turn which gossip and slander had taken in relation to Maggie, had recently been made more fully aware of it by an earnest remonstrance from one of his male parishioners against the indiscretion of persisting in the attempt to overcome the prevalent feeling in the parish by a course of resistance. Dr. Kenn, having a conscience void of offence in the matter, was still inclined to persevere,–was still averse to give way before a public sentiment that was odious and contemptible; but he was finally wrought upon by the consideration of the peculiar responsibility attached to his office, of avoiding the appearance of evil,–an "appearance" that is always dependent on the average quality of surrounding minds. Where these minds are low and gross, the area of that "appearance" is proportionately widened. Perhaps he was in danger of acting from obstinacy; perhaps it was his duty to succumb. Conscientious people are apt to see their duty in that which is the most painful course; and to recede was always painful to Dr. Kenn. He made up his mind that he must advise Maggie to go away from St. Ogg's for a time; and he performed that difficult task with as much delicacy as he could, only stating in vague terms that he found his attempt to countenance her stay was a source of discord between himself and his parishioners, that was likely to obstruct his usefulness as a clergyman. He begged her to allow him to write to a clerical friend of his, who might possibly take her into his own family as governess; and, if not, would probably know of some other available position for a young woman in whose welfare Dr. Kenn felt a strong interest.
Poor Maggie listened with a trembling lip; she could say nothing but a faint "Thank you, I shall be grateful"; and she walked back to her lodgings, through the driving rain, with a new sense of desolation. She must be a lonely wanderer; she must go out among fresh faces, that would look at her wonderingly, because the days did not seem joyful to her; she must begin a new life, in which she would have to rouse herself to receive new impressions; and she was so unspeakably, sickeningly weary! There was no home, no help for the erring; even those who pitied were constrained to hardness. But ought she to complain? Ought she to shrink in this way from the long penance of life, which was all the possibility she had of lightening the load to some other sufferers, and so changing that passionate error into a new force of unselfish human love? All the next day she sat in her lonely room, with a window darkened by the cloud and the driving rain, thinking of that future, and wrestling for patience; for what repose could poor Maggie ever win except by wrestling?
And on the third day–this day of which she had just sat out the close–the letter had come which was lying on the table before her.
The letter was from Stephen. He was come back from Holland; he was at Mudport again, unknown to any of his friends, and had written to her from that place, enclosing the letter to a person whom he trusted in St. Ogg's. From beginning to end it was a passionate cry of reproach; an appeal against her useless sacrifice of him, of herself, against that perverted notion of right which led her to crush all his hopes, for the sake of a mere idea, and not any substantial good,–his hopes, whom she loved, and who loved her with that single overpowering passion, that worship, which a man never gives to a woman more than once in his life.
"They have written to me that you are to marry Kenn. As if I should believe that! Perhaps they have told you some such fables about me. Perhaps they tell you I've been 'travelling.' My body has been dragged about somewhere; but I have never travelled from the hideous place where you left me; where I started up from the stupor of helpless rage to find you gone.
"Maggie! whose pain can have been like mine? Whose injury is like mine? Who besides me has met that long look of love that has burnt itself into my soul, so that no other image can come there? Maggie, call me back to you! Call me back to life and goodness! I am banished from both now. I have no motives; I am indifferent to everything. Two months have only deepened the certainty that I can never care for life without you. Write me one word; say 'Come!' In two days I should be with you. Maggie, have you forgotten what it was to be together,–to be within reach of a look, to be within hearing of each other's voice?"
When Maggie first read this letter she felt as if her real temptation had only just begun. At the entrance of the chill dark cavern, we turn with unworn courage from the warm light; but how, when we have trodden far in the damp darkness, and have begun to be faint and weary; how, if there is a sudden opening above us, and we are invited back again to the life-nourishing day? The leap of natural longing from under the pressure of pain is so strong, that all less immediate motives are likely to be forgotten–till the pain has been escaped from.
For hours Maggie felt as if her struggle had been in vain. For hours every other thought that she strove to summon was thrust aside by the image of Stephen waiting for the single word that would bring him to her. She did not read the letter: she heard him uttering it, and the voice shook her with its old strange power. All the day before she had been filled with the vision of a lonely future through which she must carry the burthen of regret, upheld only by clinging faith. And here, close within her reach, urging itself upon her even as a claim, was another future, in which hard endurance and effort were to be exchanged for easy, delicious leaning on another's loving strength! And yet that promise of joy in the place of sadness did not make the dire force of the temptation to Maggie.
It was Stephen's tone of misery, it was the doubt in the justice of her own resolve, that made the balance tremble, and made her once start from her seat to reach the pen and paper, and write "Come!"
But close upon that decisive act, her mind recoiled; and the sense of contradiction with her past self in her moments of strength and clearness came upon her like a pang of conscious degradation. No, she must wait; she must pray; the light that had forsaken her would come again; she should feel again what she had felt when she had fled away, under an inspiration strong enough to conquer agony,–to conquer love; she should feel again what she had felt when Lucy stood by her, when Philip's letter had stirred all the fibres that bound her to the calmer past.
She sat quite still, far on into the night, with no impulse to change her attitude, without active force enough even for the mental act of prayer; only waiting for the light that would surely come again. It came with the memories that no passion could long quench; the long past came back to her, and with it the fountains of self-renouncing pity and affection, of faithfulness and resolve. The words that were marked by the quiet hand in the little old book that she had long ago learned by heart, rushed even to her lips, and found a vent for themselves in a low murmur that was quite lost in the loud driving of the rain against the window and the loud moan and roar of the wind. "I have received the Cross, I have received it from Thy hand; I will bear it, and bear it till death, as Thou hast laid it upon me."
But soon other words rose that could find no utterance but in a sob,–"Forgive me, Stephen! It will pass away. You will come back to her."
She took up the letter, held it to the candle, and let it burn slowly on the hearth. To-morrow she would write to him the last word of parting.
"I will bear it, and bear it till death. But how long it will be before death comes! I am so young, so healthy. How shall I have patience and strength? Am I to struggle and fall and repent again? Has life other trials as hard for me still?"
With that cry of self-despair, Maggie fell on her knees against the table, and buried her sorrow-stricken face. Her soul went out to the Unseen Pity that would be with her to the end. Surely there was something being taught her by this experience of great need; and she must be learning a secret of human tenderness and long-suffering, that the less erring could hardly know? "O God, if my life is to be long, let me live to bless and comfort––"
At that moment Maggie felt a startling sensation of sudden cold about her knees and feet; it was water flowing under her. She started up; the stream was flowing under the door that led into the passage. She was not bewildered for an instant; she knew it was the flood!
The tumult of emotion she had been enduring for the last twelve hours seemed to have left a great calm in her; without screaming, she hurried with the candle upstairs to Bob Jakin's bedroom. The door was ajar; she went in and shook him by the shoulder.
"Bob, the flood is come! it is in the house; let us see if we can make the boats safe."
She lighted his candle, while the poor wife, snatching up her baby, burst into screams; and then she hurried down again to see if the waters were rising fast. There was a step down into the room at the door leading from the staircase; she saw that the water was already on a level with the step. While she was looking, something came with a tremendous crash against the window, and sent the leaded panes and the old wooden framework inward in shivers, the water pouring in after it.
"It is the boat!" cried Maggie. "Bob, come down to get the boats!"
And without a moment's shudder of fear, she plunged through the water, which was rising fast to her knees, and by the glimmering light of the candle she had left on the stairs, she mounted on to the window-sill, and crept into the boat, which was left with the prow lodging and protruding through the window. Bob was not long after her, hurrying without shoes or stockings, but with the lanthorn in his hand.
"Why, they're both here,–both the boats," said Bob, as he got into the one where Maggie was. "It's wonderful this fastening isn't broke too, as well as the mooring."
In the excitement of getting into the other boat, unfastening it, and mastering an oar, Bob was not struck with the danger Maggie incurred. We are not apt to fear for the fearless, when we are companions in their danger, and Bob's mind was absorbed in possible expedients for the safety of the helpless indoors. The fact that Maggie had been up, had waked him, and had taken the lead in activity, gave Bob a vague impression of her as one who would help to protect, not need to be protected. She too had got possession of an oar, and had pushed off, so as to release the boat from the overhanging window-frame.
"The water's rising so fast," said Bob, "I doubt it'll be in at the chambers before long,–th' house is so low. I've more mind to get Prissy and the child and the mother into the boat, if I could, and trusten to the water,–for th' old house is none so safe. And if I let go the boat–but you," he exclaimed, suddenly lifting the light of his lanthorn on Maggie, as she stood in the rain with the oar in her hand and her black hair streaming.
Maggie had no time to answer, for a new tidal current swept along the line of the houses, and drove both the boats out on to the wide water, with a force that carried them far past the meeting current of the river.
In the first moments Maggie felt nothing, thought of nothing, but that she had suddenly passed away from that life which she had been dreading; it was the transition of death, without its agony,–and she was alone in the darkness with God.
The whole thing had been so rapid, so dreamlike, that the threads of ordinary association were broken; she sank down on the seat clutching the oar mechanically, and for a long while had no distinct conception of her position. The first thing that waked her to fuller consciousness was the cessation of the rain, and a perception that the darkness was divided by the faintest light, which parted the overhanging gloom from the immeasurable watery level below. She was driven out upon the flood,–that awful visitation of God which her father used to talk of; which had made the nightmare of her childish dreams. And with that thought there rushed in the vision of the old home, and Tom, and her mother,–they had all listened together.
"O God, where am I? Which is the way home?" she cried out, in the dim loneliness.
What was happening to them at the Mill? The flood had once nearly destroyed it. They might be in danger, in distress,–her mother and her brother, alone there, beyond reach of help! Her whole soul was strained now on that thought; and she saw the long-loved faces looking for help into the darkness, and finding none.
She was floating in smooth water now,–perhaps far on the overflooded fields. There was no sense of present danger to check the outgoing of her mind to the old home; and she strained her eyes against the curtain of gloom that she might seize the first sight of her whereabout,–that she might catch some faint suggestion of the spot toward which all her anxieties tended.
Oh, how welcome, the widening of that dismal watery level, the gradual uplifting of the cloudy firmament, the slowly defining blackness of objects above the glassy dark! Yes, she must be out on the fields; those were the tops of hedgerow trees. Which way did the river lie? Looking behind her, she saw the lines of black trees; looking before her, there were none; then the river lay before her. She seized an oar and began to paddle the boat forward with the energy of wakening hope; the dawning seemed to advance more swiftly, now she was in action; and she could soon see the poor dumb beasts crowding piteously on a mound where they had taken refuge. Onward she paddled and rowed by turns in the growing twilight; her wet clothes clung round her, and her streaming hair was dashed about by the wind, but she was hardly conscious of any bodily sensations,–except a sensation of strength, inspired by mighty emotion. Along with the sense of danger and possible rescue for those long-remembered beings at the old home, there was an undefined sense of reconcilement with her brother; what quarrel, what harshness, what unbelief in each other can subsist in the presence of a great calamity, when all the artificial vesture of our life is gone, and we are all one with each other in primitive mortal needs? Vaguely Maggie felt this, in the strong resurgent love toward her brother that swept away all the later impressions of hard, cruel offence and misunderstanding, and left only the deep, underlying, unshakable memories of early union.
But now there was a large dark mass in the distance, and near to her Maggie could discern the current of the river. The dark mass must be–yes, it was–St. Ogg's. Ah, now she knew which way to look for the first glimpse of the well-known trees–the gray willows, the now yellowing chestnuts–and above them the old roof! But there was no color, no shape yet; all was faint and dim. More and more strongly the energies seemed to come and put themselves forth, as if her life were a stored-up force that was being spent in this hour, unneeded for any future.
She must get her boat into the current of the Floss, else she would never be able to pass the Ripple and approach the house; this was the thought that occurred to her, as she imagined with more and more vividness the state of things round the old home. But then she might be carried very far down, and be unable to guide her boat out of the current again. For the first time distinct ideas of danger began to press upon her; but there was no choice of courses, no room for hesitation, and she floated into the current. Swiftly she went now without effort; more and more clearly in the lessening distance and the growing light she began to discern the objects that she knew must be the well-known trees and roofs; nay, she was not far off a rushing, muddy current that must be the strangely altered Ripple.
Great God! there were floating masses in it, that might dash against her boat as she passed, and cause her to perish too soon. What were those masses?
For the first time Maggie's heart began to beat in an agony of dread. She sat helpless, dimly conscious that she was being floated along, more intensely conscious of the anticipated clash. But the horror was transient; it passed away before the oncoming warehouses of St. Ogg's. She had passed the mouth of the Ripple, then; now, she must use all her skill and power to manage the boat and get it if possible out of the current. She could see now that the bridge was broken down; she could see the masts of a stranded vessel far out over the watery field. But no boats were to be seen moving on the river,–such as had been laid hands on were employed in the flooded streets.
With new resolution, Maggie seized her oar, and stood up again to paddle; but the now ebbing tide added to the swiftness of the river, and she was carried along beyond the bridge. She could hear shouts from the windows overlooking the river, as if the people there were calling to her. It was not till she had passed on nearly to Tofton that she could get the boat clear of the current. Then with one yearning look toward her uncle Deane's house that lay farther down the river, she took to both her oars and rowed with all her might across the watery fields, back toward the Mill. Color was beginning to awake now, and as she approached the Dorlcote fields, she could discern the tints of the trees, could see the old Scotch firs far to the right, and the home chestnuts,–oh, how deep they lay in the water,–deeper than the trees on this side the hill! And the roof of the Mill–where was it? Those heavy fragments hurrying down the Ripple,–what had they meant? But it was not the house,–the house stood firm; drowned up to the first story, but still firm,–or was it broken in at the end toward the Mill?
With panting joy that she was there at last,–joy that overcame all distress,–Maggie neared the front of the house. At first she heard no sound; she saw no object moving. Her boat was on a level with the upstairs window. She called out in a loud, piercing voice,–
"Tom, where are you? Mother, where are you? Here is Maggie!"
Soon, from the window of the attic in the central gable, she heard Tom's voice,–
"Who is it? Have you brought a boat?"
"It is I, Tom,–Maggie. Where is mother?"
"She is not here; she went to Garum the day before yesterday. I'll come down to the lower window."
"Alone, Maggie?" said Tom, in a voice of deep astonishment, as he opened the middle window, on a level with the boat.
"Yes, Tom; God has taken care of me, to bring me to you. Get in quickly. Is there no one else?"
"No," said Tom, stepping into the boat; "I fear the man is drowned; he was carried down the Ripple, I think, when part of the Mill fell with the crash of trees and stones against it; I've shouted again and again, and there has been no answer. Give me the oars, Maggie."
It was not till Tom had pushed off and they were on the wide water,–he face to face with Maggie,–that the full meaning of what had happened rushed upon his mind. It came with so overpowering a force,–it was such a new revelation to his spirit, of the depths in life that had lain beyond his vision, which he had fancied so keen and clear,–that he was unable to ask a question. They sat mutely gazing at each other,–Maggie with eyes of intense life looking out from a weary, beaten face; Tom pale, with a certain awe and humiliation. Thought was busy though the lips were silent; and though he could ask no question, he guessed a story of almost miraculous, divinely protected effort. But at last a mist gathered over the blue-gray eyes, and the lips found a word they could utter,–the old childish "Magsie!"
Maggie could make no answer but a long, deep sob of that mysterious, wondrous happiness that is one with pain.
As soon as she could speak, she said, "We will go to Lucy, Tom; we'll go and see if she is safe, and then we can help the rest."
Tom rowed with untired vigor, and with a different speed from poor Maggie's. The boat was soon in the current of the river again, and soon they would be at Tofton.
"Park House stands high up out of the flood," said Maggie. "Perhaps they have got Lucy there."
Nothing else was said; a new danger was being carried toward them by the river. Some wooden machinery had just given way on one of the wharves, and huge fragments were being floated along. The sun was rising now, and the wide area of watery desolation was spread out in dreadful clearness around them; in dreadful clearness floated onward the hurrying, threatening masses. A large company in a boat that was working its way along under the Tofton houses observed their danger, and shouted, "Get out of the current!"
But that could not be done at once; and Tom, looking before him, saw death rushing on them. Huge fragments, clinging together in fatal fellowship, made one wide mass across the stream.
"It is coming, Maggie!" Tom said, in a deep, hoarse voice, loosing the oars, and clasping her.
The next instant the boat was no longer seen upon the water, and the huge mass was hurrying on in hideous triumph.
But soon the keel of the boat reappeared, a black speck on the golden water.
The boat reappeared, but brother and sister had gone down in an embrace never to be parted; living through again in one supreme moment the days when they had clasped their little hands in love, and roamed the daisied fields together.
Nature repairs her ravages,–repairs them with her sunshine, and with human labor. The desolation wrought by that flood had left little visible trace on the face of the earth, five years after. The fifth autumn was rich in golden cornstacks, rising in thick clusters among the distant hedgerows; the wharves and warehouses on the Floss were busy again, with echoes of eager voices, with hopeful lading and unlading.
And every man and woman mentioned in this history was still living, except those whose end we know.
Nature repairs her ravages, but not all. The uptorn trees are not rooted again; the parted hills are left scarred; if there is a new growth, the trees are not the same as the old, and the hills underneath their green vesture bear the marks of the past rending. To the eyes that have dwelt on the past, there is no thorough repair.
Dorlcote Mill was rebuilt. And Dorlcote churchyard–where the brick grave that held a father whom we know, was found with the stone laid prostrate upon it after the flood–had recovered all its grassy order and decent quiet.
Near that brick grave there was a tomb erected, very soon after the flood, for two bodies that were found in close embrace; and it was visited at different moments by two men who both felt that their keenest joy and keenest sorrow were forever buried there.
One of them visited the tomb again with a sweet face beside him; but that was years after.
The other was always solitary. His great companionship was among the trees of the Red Deeps, where the buried joy seemed still to hover, like a revisiting spirit.
The tomb bore the names of Tom and Maggie Tulliver, and below the names it was written,–
"In their death they were not divided."