Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Books, poems, drama…

A Life's Morning by George Gissing

Part 8 out of 8

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.9 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

no hope for her for ever, nothing but the grave to rest her tired heart?
Why had fate dealt with her so cruelly? She looked round and saw none
upon whom had fallen a curse so unrelieved.

At last the desire to go once more to the south of England grew
overpowering. If she could live in London, she felt it might console her
to feel that she was near Wilfrid; he would not seem, as now, in a world
utterly remote. Perchance she might one day even see him. If she had
knowledge of the approach of death, Wilfrid would not refuse to come and
see her at the last, and with her hand in his how easy it would be to
die. She sought for means of supporting herself in London; she still had
money saved from that which the sale of her father's house had brought
her, but she did not wish to use more of this than she could help,
keeping it for a certain cherished purpose. After many months of
fruitless endeavour, she found a place in a school in Hammersmith....

And Wilfrid had sat by her, had looked at her with something of the old
tenderness, had pressed her hand as no one else would. Far into the
night she lay thinking over every word he had spoken. Sometimes she
wept--poor Emily! He had not asked her where she lived; for that
doubtless there was good reason. But it was much to have seen him this
once. Again she wept, saying to herself that she loved him,--that he was
lost to her,--that she must die.

CHAPTER XXIII

HER PATH IN THE LIGHT

That Wilfrid did not at the last moment leap on shore and follow Emily
seemed to him less the result of self-control than obedience to outward
restraint; it was as though an actual hand lay on his shoulder and held
him back. He went back to his seat, and again fell into dreaminess.

The arrival of the boat at Chelsea pier reminded him that he must land;
thence he drove home. On reaching the house he found Mrs. Birks there;
she had called to see his father, and was in the hall on the point of
leaving as he entered. She stepped up to him, and spoke in a low voice.

'What is the matter with Beatrice?'

'The matter? How?'

'She seems out of sorts. Come round and see her, will you?'

'I really can't just now,' Wilfrid replied. 'Do you mean that she is not
well?'

'Something seems to be upsetting her. Why can't you come and see her?'

'I can't this evening. I have an engagement.'

'Very well. But you had better come soon, I think.'

'I don't understand you,' said Wilfrid, with some show of impatience.
'Is she ill?'

'Not exactly ill, I suppose. Of course I mustn't interfere. No doubt you
understand.'

'I will come as soon as I can,' Wilfrid said. And he added, 'Has
she--spoken to you about anything?'

'I wish she had. She will speak neither to me nor to anyone else. It is
too bad, Wilf, if you let her fret herself into a fever. She is just the
girl to do it, you know.'

She nodded, smiled, and went off. Wilfrid, having committed himself to
an engagement, loitered about in his dressing-room for a while, then,
without seeing his father, betook himself to his club and dined there.
After passing the early part of the evening in an uncomfortable way,
with the help of newspapers and casual conversation, he went home again
and shut himself in his study.

He sat long, without attempting to do anything. About midnight he rose
as if to leave the room, but, instead of doing so, paced the floor for a
few minutes; then he opened a certain drawer in his writing-table, and
took out the morocco case which contained Emily's letters. He slipped
off the band. The letters were still in their envelopes, and lay in the
order in which he had received them. He drew forth the first and began
to read it. He read them all.

Till the early daybreak he remained in the room, sometimes walking
about, sometimes seating himself to re-read this letter and that.
Twenty-four hours ago these written words would have touched his heart
indeed, but only as does the memory of an irrecoverable joy; he could
have read them, and still have gone to meet Beatrice as usual, or with
but a little more than his ordinary reserve in her presence. It was
otherwise now. The very voice had spoken again, and its tones lingering
with him made the written characters vocal; each word uttered itself as
it met his eye; Emily spoke still. The paper was old, the ink faded, but
the love was of this hour. He grew fevered, and it was the fever of
years ago, which had only been in appearance subdued; it had lurked
still in his blood, and now asserted itself with the old dire mastery.

He marvelled that he had suffered her to leave him without even learning
where she lived. He could not understand what his mood had been, what
motives had weighed with him. He had not been conscious of a severe
struggle to resist a temptation; the temptation had not, in fact, yet
formed itself. What was her own thought? She had answered his questions
freely, perhaps would have told him without hesitation the address of
her lodgings. Clearly she no longer sought to escape him. But that, he
reminded himself, was only the natural response to his own perfectly
calm way of speaking; she could not suggest embarrassments when it was
his own cue to show that he felt none. She was still free, it seemed,
but what was her feeling towards him? Did she still love him? Was the
mysterious cause which had parted them still valid?

When already it was daylight, he went upstairs and lay down on the bed;
he was weary, but not with the kind of weariness that brings sleep. His
mind was occupied with plans for discovering where Emily lived. Mrs.
Baxendale had professed to have lost sight of her; Wilfrid saw now that
there was a reason for concealing the truth, and felt that in all
probability his friend had misled him; in any case, he could not apply
to her. Was there a chance of a second meeting in the same place? Emily
was sure to be free on Saturday afternoon; but only in one case would
she go to the park again--if she desired to see him, and imagined a
corresponding desire on his side. And that was an unlikely thing;
granting she loved him, it was not in Emily's character to scheme thus,
under the circumstances.

Yet why had she chosen to come and live in London?

Beatrice he had put out of his thoughts. He did not do it deliberately;
he made no daring plans; simply he gave himself over to the rising flood
of passion, without caring to ask whither it would bear him. Though it
fevered him, there was a luxury in the sense of abandonment once more to
desire which suffered no questioning. That he had ever really loved
Beatrice he saw now to be more than doubtful; that he loved Emily was as
certain as that he lived. To compare the images of the two women was to
set side by side a life sad and wan with one which bloomed like a royal
flower, a face whose lines were wasted by long desolation with one whose
loveliness was the fit embodiment of supreme joy. But in the former he
found a beauty of which the other offered no suggestion, a beauty which
appealed to him with the most subtle allurements, which drew him as with
siren song, which, if he still contemplated it, would inspire him with
recklessness. He made no effort to expel it from his imagination; every
hour it was sweeter to forget the facts of life and dream of what might
be.

Through this day and that which followed he kept away from home, only
returning late at night. No more news of Beatrice came. He saw that his
father regarded him with looks of curiosity, but only conversation of
the wonted kind passed between them. When Saturday arrived he was no
longer in doubt whether to pursue the one faint hope of finding Emily
again in Bushey Park; the difficulty was to pass the time till noon,
before which it was useless to start. He was due for the last sitting in
the studio at Teddington, but that was an ordeal impossible to go
through in his present state of mind. He went to Hampton by train,
lunched again at the King's Arms, though but hastily, and at length
reached the spot in the park where his eyes had discovered Emily
reading.

It was not such a day as Wednesday had been; the sun shone
intermittently, but there was threatening of rain. A vehicle now and
then drove along the avenue taking holiday-makers to the Palace, and,
near the place where Wilfrid walked, a party was picnicking under the
trees. But he in vain sought for one who wandered alone, one who, in the
distance, could move him to uncertain hope.

Why had he come? Suppose he did again meet Emily, what had he to say to
her? Long and useless waiting naturally suggested such thoughts, and the
answer to them was a momentary failing at the heart, a touch of fear.
Was he prepared to treat this temporary coldness between Beatrice and
himself as a final rupture? Was his present behaviour exactly that of a
man who recognises rules of honour? If he had no purpose in wishing to
see Emily but the satisfaction of a desire about which he would not
reason, was it not unqualified treachery in which he was involving
himself, treachery to two women and to one of them utter cruelty? He
turned to walk towards the lake, desperate that his hope had failed, and
at the same time--strange contradiction--glad in the thought that,
having once yielded, he might overcome his madness. He passed the lake,
and reached the exit from the park. At the same moment Emily was
entering.

Her face expressed an agony of shame; she could not raise her eyes,
could not speak. She gave him her hand mechanically, and walked on with
her looks averted. Her distress was so unconcealed that it pained him
acutely. He could not find words till they had walked a distance of
twenty or thirty yards. Then he said:

'I came purposely to-day, in the hope that you might by chance be here.
Do I annoy you?'

She half turned her face to him, but the effort to speak was vain.

A still longer silence followed. Wilfrid knew at length what he had
done. That utterance of his had but one meaning, Emily's mute reply
admitted of but one interpretation. His eyes dazzled; his heart beat
violently. A gulf sank before him, and there was no longer choice but to
plunge into it. He looked at his companion, and--farewell the solid
ground.

'Emily, is it your wish that I should leave you?'

She faced him, moved her lips, motioned 'no' with her head. She was like
one who is led to death.

'Then I will not leave you. Let us walk gently on; you shall speak to me
when you feel able.'

He cared for no obstacle now. She was come back to him from the dead,
and to him it was enough of life to hold her. Let the world go; let all
speak of him as they would; this pale, weary-eyed woman should
henceforth represent existence to him. He would know no law but the
bidding of his sovereign love.

She spoke.

'Have I fallen in your eyes?'

'You have always been to me the highest, and will be whilst I live.'

They had passed into the shadow of the trees; he took her hand and held
it. The touch seemed to strengthen her, for she looked at him again and
spoke firmly.

'Neither was my coming without thought of you. I had no hope that you
would be here, no least hope, but I came because it was here I had seen
you.'

'Since Wednesday,' Wilfrid returned, 'I have read your letters many
times. Could you still speak to me as you did then?'

'If you could believe me.'

'You said once that you did not love me.'

'It was untrue.'

'May you tell me now what it was that came between us?'

She fixed upon him a gaze of sad entreaty, and said, under her breath,
'Not now.'

'Then I will never ask. Let it be what it might; your simple word that
you loved me is all I need.'

'I will tell you,' Emily replied, 'but I cannot now. It seemed to me at
the time that that secret would have to die with me; I thought so till I
met you here. Then I knew that, if you still loved me and had been
faithful to me so long, I could say nothing to myself which I might not
speak to you. My love for you has conquered every other love and
everything that I believed my duty.'

'Is it so, Emily?' he asked, with deepest tenderness.

'When I tell you all, you will perhaps feel that I have proved my own
weakness. I will conceal from you nothing I have ever thought; you will
see that I tried to do what my purest instincts urged, and that I have
been unable to per. severe to the end. Wilfrid--'

'My own soul!'

'When I tell you all that happened at that time, I shall indeed speak to
you as if your soul and mine were one. It may be wrong to tell you--you
may despise me for not keeping such things a secret for ever. I cannot
tell whether I am right or wrong to do this. Is your love like mine?'

'I would say it was greater, if you were not so above me in all things.'

'Wilfrid, I was dying in my loneliness. It would not have been hard to
die, for, if I was weak in everything else, at least my love for you
would have grown to my last breath. If I speak things which I should
only prove in silence, it is that you may not afterwards judge me
hardly.'

'You shall tell me,' Wilfrid replied, 'when you are my wife. Till then I
will hear nothing but that you are and always have been mine.'

They came to a great tree about the trunk of which had been built a
circular seat. The glades on every side showed no disturbing approach.

'Let us sit here,' said Wilfrid. 'We have always talked with each other
in the open air, haven't we?'

He drew her to him and kissed her face passionately. It was the
satisfying of a hunger of years. With Beatrice his caresses had seldom
been other than playful; from the first moment of re-meeting with Emily,
he had longed to hold her to his heart.

'Can I hope to keep you now? You won't leave me again, Emily?'

'If I leave you, Wilfrid, it will be to die.'

Again he folded her in his arms, and kissed her lips, her cheeks, her
eyes. She was as weak as a trembling flower.

'Emily, I shall be in dread through every moment that parts us. Will you
consent to whatever I ask of you? Once before I would have taken you and
made you my wife, and if you had yielded we should have escaped all this
long misery. Will you now do what I wish?'

She looked at him questioningly.

'Will you marry me as soon as it can possibly be? On Monday I will do
what is necessary, and we can be married on Wednesday. This time you
will not refuse?'

'Wednesday?'

'Yes. One day only need intervene between the notice and the marriage;
it shall be at the church nearest to you.'

'Wilfrid, why do you--'

Fear had taken hold upon her she could not face the thought. Wilfrid
checked her faint words with his lips.

'I wish it,' he said, himself shaken with a tempest of passion which
whelmed the last protest of his conscience. 'I shall scarcely tear
myself from you even till then. Emily, Emily, what has my life been
without your love? Oh, you will be the angel that raises me out of the
ignoble world into which I have fallen! Hold me to you--make me feel and
believe that you have saved me! Emily, my beautiful, my goddess! let me
worship you, pray to you! Mine now, mine, love, for ever and ever!

She burst into tears, unable to suffer this new denizen of her heart,
the sure and certain hope of bliss. He kissed away the tears as they
fell, whispering love that was near to frenzy. There came a Bob that
shook her whole frame, then Wilfrid felt her cheek grow very cold
against his; her eyes were half closed, from her lips escaped a faint
moan. He drew back and, uncertain whether she had lost consciousness,
called to her to speak. Her body could not fall, for it rested against a
hollow part of the great trunk. The faintness lasted only for a few
moments; she once more gazed at him with the eyes of infinite sadness.

'It is so hard to bear happiness,' were her first words.

'My dearest, you are weak and worn with trouble. Oh, we will soon leave
that far behind us. Are you better, my lily? Only give me your hands to
hold, and I will be very still. Your hands are so light; they weigh no
more than leaves. Do you suffer, dear?'

'A little pain--there;' she touched her heart.

Wilfrid looked into her face anxiously.

'Have you often that pain?'

'No, not often. I don't feel it now. Wilfrid! Every day I have spoken
that name, have spoken it aloud.'

'So have I often spoken yours, dear.'

They gazed at each other in silence.

'And it is to be as I wish?' Wilfrid said gently.

'So very soon?'

'So very long! This is only Saturday. If I had known this morning, it
could have been on Monday.'

'Your wife, Wilfrid? Really your wife?'

'How your voice has changed! Till now you spoke so sadly. Those words
are like the happiest of our old happy time. Three long days to be
passed, but not one day more. You promise me?'

'I do your bidding, now and always, always!'

For the moment she had forgotten everything but love and love's rapture.
It was as though life spread before her in limitless glory; she thought
nothing of the dark foe with whose ever-watchful, ever-threatening
presence she had become so familiar.

They talked long; only the lengthening and deepening shadow of the trees
reminded them at length that hours had passed whilst they sat here.

'The boat will have gone,' Emily said.

'Never mind. We will get a conveyance at the hotel. And you must have
refreshment of some kind. Shall we see what they can give us to eat at
the King's Arms? To be sure we will. It will be our first meal
together.'

They rose.

'Emily!'

'Yes, Wilfrid?'

'I can trust you? You will not fail me?'

'Not if I am living, Wilfrid.'

'Oh, but I shall of course see you before Wednesday. To-morrow is
Sunday--'

He checked himself. Sunday was the day he always gave to Beatrice. But
he durst not think of that now.

'On Sunday there are so many people about,' he continued. 'Will you come
here again on Monday afternoon?'

Emily promised to do so.

'I will write to you to-morrow, and again a letter for Tuesday, giving
you the last directions. But I may have to see you on Tuesday. May I
call at your lodgings?'

'If you need to. Surely you may? My--my husband?'

'My wife!'

They walked to the hotel, and thence, when dusk was falling, started to
drive homewards. They stopped at the end of Emily's street, and Wilfrid
walked with her to the door.

'Till Monday afternoon,' he said, grasping her hand as if he clung to it
in fear.

Then he found another vehicle. It was dark when he reached home.

CHAPTER XXIV

THE UNEXPECTED

Late in the evening Wilfrid received a visit from his father. Mr. Athel
had dined with his sister, and subsequently accompanied his nieces to a
concert. Beatrice should have sung, but had broken her engagement on the
plea of ill-health.

'Been at home all the evening?' Mr. Athel began by asking.

'I got home late,' Wilfrid answered, rising from his chair.

His father had something to say which cost him hesitation. He walked
about with his hands between the tails of his coat.

'Seen Beatrice lately?' he inquired at length.

'No; not since last Monday.'

'I'm afraid she isn't well. She didn't sing to-night. Didn't dine with
us either.'

Wilfrid kept silence.

'Something wrong?' was his father's next question.

'Yes, there is.'

'I'm sorry to hear that.'

Wilfrid went to the fireplace and leaned his arm upon the mantelpiece.
As he did not seem disposed to speak, his father continued--

'Nothing serious, I hope?'

'Yes; something serious.'

'You don't mean that? Anything you can talk about?'

'I'm afraid not. I shall go and see Beatrice as usual tomorrow. I may be
at liberty to tell you after that, though probably not for a few days.'

Mr. Athel looked annoyed.

'I hope this is not of your doing,' he said. 'They tell me the girl is
causing them a good deal of anxiety. For the last few days she has been
sitting alone, scarcely touching food, and refusing to speak to anyone.
If this goes on she will be ill.'

Wilfrid spoke hoarsely.

'I can't help it. I shall see her to-morrow.'

'All right,' observed his father, with the impatience which was his way
of meeting disorders in this admirable universe. 'Your aunt asked me to
tell you this; of course I can do no more.'

Wilfrid made no reply, and Mr. Athel left him.

It was an hour of terrible suffering that Wilfrid lived through before
he left the study and went to lay his head on the pillow. He had not
thought very much of Beatrice hitherto; the passion which had spurred
him blindly on made him forgetful of everything but the end his heart
desired. Now that the end was within reach, he could consider what it
was that he had done. He was acting like a very madman. He could not
hope that any soul would regard his frenzy even with compassion; on all
sides he would meet with the sternest condemnation. Who would recognise
his wife? This step which he was taking meant rupture with all his
relatives, perchance with all his friends; for it would be universally
declared that he had been guilty of utter baseness. His career was
ruined. It might happen that he would have to leave England with Emily,
abandoning for her sake everything else that he prized.

How would Beatrice bear the revelation? Mere suspense had made her ill;
such a blow as this might kill her. Never before had he been consciously
guilty of an act of cruelty or of wrong to any the least valued of those
with whom he had dealt; to realise what his treachery meant to Beatrice
was so terrible that he dared not fix his thought upon it. Her love for
him was intense beyond anything he had imagined in woman; Emily had
never seemed to him possessed with so vehement a passion. Indeed he had
often doubted whether Emily's was a passionate nature; at times she was
almost cold--appeared so, in his thought of her--and never had she
given way to that self-forgetful ardour which was so common in Beatrice.
Sweat broke out upon his forehead as he saw the tragic issues to which
his life was tending. There was no retreat, save by a second act of
apostasy so unspeakably shameful that the brand of it would drive him to
self-destruction. He had made his choice, or had been driven upon it by
the powers which ruled his destiny; it only remained to have the courage
of his resolve and to defy consequences. At least it was in no less a
cause than that of his life's one love. There was no stamp of turpitude
on the end for which he would sacrifice so much and occasion so much
misery.

He passed the time in his own rooms till the afternoon of the following
day; then, at the customary hour, he set forth to visit Beatrice. Would
she see him? In his heart he hoped that she would refuse to; yet he
dreaded lest he should be told that she was too unwell. It was a new
thing in Wilfrid's experience to approach any door with shame and dread;
between his ringing the bell and the servant's answer he learnt 'well
what those words mean.

He was admitted as usual, the servant making no remark. As usual, he was
led to Beatrice's room.

She was sitting in the chair she always occupied, and was dressed with
the accustomed perfection. But her face was an index to the sufferings
she had endured this past week. As soon as the door had closed, she
stood to receive him, but not with extended hand. Her eyes were fixed
upon him steadily, and Wilfrid, with difficulty meeting them,
experienced a shook of new fear, a kind of fear he could not account
for. Outwardly she was quite calm; it was something in her look, an
indefinable suggestion of secret anguish, that impressed him so. He did
not try to take her hand, but, having laid down his hat, came near to
her and spoke as quietly as he could.

'May I speak to you of what passed between us last Monday?'

'How can we avoid speaking of it?' she replied, in a low voice, her eyes
still searching him.

'I ought to have come to see you before this,' Wilfrid continued, taking
the seat to which she pointed, whilst she also sat down. 'I could not.'

'I have been expecting you,' Beatrice said, in an emotionless way.

The nervous tension with which he had come into her presence had yielded
to a fit of trembling. Coldness ran along his veins; his tongue refused
its office; his eyes sank before her gaze.

'I felt sure you would come to-day,' Beatrice continued, with the same
absence of pronounced feeling. 'If not, I must have gone to your house.
What do you wish to say to me?'

'That which I find it very difficult to say. I feel that after what
happened on Monday we cannot be quite the same to each other. I fear I
said some things that were not wholly true.'

Beatrice seemed to be holding her breath. Her face was marble. She sat
unmoving.

'You mean,' she said at length, 'that those letters represented more
than you were willing to confess?'

It was calmly asked. Evidently Wilfrid had no outbreak of resentment to
fear. He would have preferred it to this dreadful self-command.

'More,' he answered, 'than I felt at the time. I spoke no word of
conscious falsehood.'

'Has anything happened to prove to you what you then denied?'

He looked at her in doubt. Could she in any way have learnt what had
come to pass? Whilst talking, he had made up his mind to disclose
nothing definitely; he would explain his behaviour merely as arising
from doubt of himself. It would make the rest easier for her to bear
hereafter.

'I have read those letters again,' he answered.

'And you have learnt that you never loved me?'

He held his eyes down, unable to utter words. Beatrice also was silent
for a long time. At length she said--

'I think you are keeping something from me?'

He raised his face.

'Has nothing else happened?' she asked, with measured tone, a little
sad, nothing more.

The truth was forced from him, and its utterance gave him a relief which
was in itself a source of new agitation.

'Yes, something else has happened.'

'I knew it.'

'How did you--?'

'I felt it. You have met her again.'

Again he was speechless. Beatrice asked--

'Does she live in London?'

'She does.'

'You have met her, and have--have wished that you were free?'

'Beatrice, I have done worse. I have acted as though I were free.'

She shook, as if a blow had fallen upon her. Then a smile came to her
lips.

'You have asked her again to be your wife?'

'I have.'

'And she has consented?'

'Because I deceived her at the same time that I behaved dishonourably to
you.'

She fixed upon him eyes which had a strange inward look, eyes veiled
with reverie, vaguely troubled, unimpassioned. It was as though she
calmly readjusted in her own mind the relations between him and herself.
The misery of Wilfrid's situation was mitigated in a degree by mere
wonder at her mode of receiving his admissions. This interview was no
logical sequence upon the scene of a week ago; and the issue then had
been, one would have thought, less provocative of demonstration than
to-day's.

Directness once more armed her gaze, and again he was powerless to meet
it. Still no resentment, no condemnation. She asked--

'It is your intention to marry soon?'

He could not reply.

'Will you let me see you once more before your marriage?' she continued.
'That is, if I find I wish it. I am not sure. I may or may not.'

It was rather a debate with herself than an address to him.

'May I leave you now, Beatrice?' he said, suddenly. 'Every drop of blood
in me is shame-heated. In telling you this, I have done something which
I thought would be beyond my force.'

'Yes,' she murmured, 'it will be better if we part now.'

She rose and watched him as he stepped to the table and took his hat.
There was a moment's hesitation on either side, but Beatrice did not
offer her hand. She stood superbly, as a queen might dismiss one from
whom her thoughts were already wandering. He bowed, with inward
self-mockery, and left her.

Some hours later, when already the summer evening had cloaked itself,
Wilfrid found himself wandering by the river, not far from Hammersmith.
The influence of a great water flowing from darkness into darkness was
strong upon him; he was seeking for a hope in the transitoriness of all
things earthly. Would not the hour come when this present anguish, this
blood-poisoning shame, would have passed far away and have left no mark?
Was it not thinking too grandiosely to attribute to the actions of such
a one as himself a tragic gravity? Was there not supernal laughter at
the sight of him, Wilfrid Athel, an English gentleman, a member of the
Lower House of the British Parliament, posing as the arbiter of
destinies? What did it all come to? An imbroglio on the threshold of
matrimony; a temporary doubt which of two women was to enjoy the honour
of styling herself Mrs. Athel. The day's long shame led to this
completeness of self-contempt. As if Beatrice would greatly care! Why,
in his very behaviour he had offered the cure for her heartburn; and her
calmness showed how effective the remedy would be. The very wife whom he
held securely had only been won by keeping silence; tell her the story
of the last few days, and behold him altogether wifeless. He laughed
scornfully. To this had he come from those dreams which guided him when
he was a youth. A commonplace man, why should he not have commonplace
experiences?

He had walked in this direction with the thought of passing beneath
Emily's window before he returned home, yet, now that he was not more
than half an hour's walk from her, he felt weary and looked aside for a
street which should lead him to the region of vehicles. As he did so, he
noticed a woman's form leaning over the riverside parapet at a short
distance. A thought drew him nearer to her. Yes, it was Emily herself.

'You were coming to see me?' she asked.

Love in a woman's voice--what cynicism so perdurable that it will bear
against that assailant? In the dusk, he put her gloved hand against his
lips, and the touch made him once more noble.

'I had meant to, beautiful, but it seemed too late, and I was just on
the point of turning back. You always appear to me when I most need
you.'

'You wanted to speak to me, Wilfrid?'

'When do I not? My life seems so thin and poor; only your breath gives
it colour. Emily, I shall ask so much of you. I have lost all faith in
myself; you must restore it.'

They stood close to each other, hand in hand, looking down at the dark
flow.

'If I had not met you, Wilfrid,' she said, or whispered, 'I think my end
must have been there--there, below us. I have often come here at night.
It is always a lonely place, and at high tide the water is deep.'

His hand closed upon hers with rescuing force.

'I am carrying a letter,' Emily continued, 'that I was going to post
before I went in. I will give it you now, and I am glad of the
opportunity; it seems safer. I have written what I feel I could never
say to you. Read it and destroy it, and never speak of what it
contains.'

She gave him the letter, and then he walked with her homewards.

On the morrow, shortly after breakfast, he was sitting in his study,
when a knock came at the door. He bade enter, and it was Beatrice. She
came towards him, gave her hand mechanically, and said--

'Can you spare me a few minutes?'

He placed a chair for her. Her eyes had not closed since they last
looked at him; he saw it, though the expression of her features was not
weariness.

'There is one thing, Wilfrid, that I think I have a right to ask you.
Will you tell me why she left you, years ago?'

Her tone was that of one continuing a conversation. There might have
been no break between yesterday and to-day. We cannot always gather from
the voice what struggle has preceded utterance.

Wilfrid turned away. On the table lay that letter of Emily's; he had
read it many times, and was reading it when the knock disturbed him.
With a sudden movement, he took up the sheet of paper and held it to
Beatrice.

'It is there--the reason. I myself have only known it a few hours. Read
that. I have no right to show it you--and no right to refuse.'

Beatrice held the letter for a brief space without turning her eyes upon
it. Wilfrid walked to a distance, and at length she read. Emily had
recounted every circumstance of her father's death, and told the history
of her own feelings, all with complete simplicity, almost coldly. Only
an uncertainty in the hand-writing here and there showed the suffering
it had cost her to look once more into the very eyes of the past. Yet it
was of another than herself that she wrote; she felt that even in her
memory of woe.

They faced each other again. Beatrice's eyes were distended; their
depths lightened.

'I am glad! I am glad you met her before it was too late!'

Her voice quivered upon a low, rich note. Such an utterance was the
outcome of a nature strong to the last limit of self-conquest. Wilfrid
heard and regarded her with a kind of fear; her intensity passed to him;
he trembled.

'I have nothing to pardon,' she continued. 'You were hers long before my
love had touched your heart. You have tried to love me; but this has
come soon enough to save us both.'

And again--

'If I did not love you, I should act selfishly; but self is all gone
from me. In this moment I could do greater things to help you to
happiness. Tell me; have you yet spoken to--to the others?'

'To no one.'

'Then do not. It shall all come from me. No one shall cast upon you a
shadow of blame. You have done me no wrong; you were hers, and you
wronged her when you tried to love me. I will help you--at least I can
be your friend. Listen; I shall see her. It shall be I who have brought
you together again--that is how the shall all think of it. I shall see
her, and as your friend, as the only one to whom you have yet spoken. Do
you understand me, Wilfrid? Do you see that I make the future smooth for
her and you? She must never know what _we_ know, And the others--they
shall do as I will; they shall not dare to speak one word against you.
What right have they, if _I_ am--am glad?'

He stood in amaze. It was impossible to doubt her sincerity; her face,
the music of her voice, the gestures by which her eagerness expressed
herself, all were too truthful. What divine nature had lain hidden in
this woman! He gazed at her as on a being more than mortal.

'How can I accept this from you?' he asked hoarsely.

'Accept? How can you refuse? It is my right, it is my will! Would you
refuse me this one poor chance of proving that my love was unselfish? I
would have killed myself to win a tender look from you at the last
moment, and you shall not go away thinking less of me than I deserve.
You know already that I am not the idle powerless woman you once thought
me; you shall know that I can do yet more. If _she_ is noble in your
eyes, can _I_ consent to be less so?'

Passion the most exalted possessed her. It infected Wilfrid. He felt
that the common laws of intercourse between man and woman had here no
application; the higher ground to which she summoned him knew no
authority of the conventional. To hang his head was to proclaim his own
littleness.

'You are not less noble, Beatrice,' his voice murmured.

'You have said it. So there is no longer a constraint between us. How
simple it is to do for love's sake what those who do not know love think
impossible. I will see her, then the last difficulty is removed. That
letter has told me where she lives. If I go there to-day, I shall find
her?'

'Not till the evening,' Wilfrid replied under his breath.

'When is your marriage?'

He looked at her without speaking.

'Very soon? Before the end of the session?'

'The day after to-morrow.'

She was white to the lips, but kept her eyes on him steadily.

'And you go away at once?'

'I had thought'--he began; then added, 'Yes, at once; it is better.'

'Yes, better. Your friend stays and makes all ready for your return.
Perhaps I shall not see you after to-day, for that time. Then we are to
each ether what we used to be. You will bring her to hear me sing? I
shall not give it up now.'

She smiled, moved a little away from him, then turned again and gave her
hand for leave-taking.

'Wilfrid!'

'Beatrice?'

'She would not grudge it me. Kiss me--the last time--on my lips!'

He kissed her. When the light came again to his eyes, Beatrice had gone.

In the evening Emily sat expectant. Either Wilfrid would come or there
would be a letter from him; yes. he would come; for, after reading what
she had written, the desire to speak with her must be strong in him. She
sat at her window and looked along the dull street.

She had spent the day as usual--that is to say, in the familiar school
routine; but the heart she had brought to her work was far other than
that which for long years had laboriously pulsed the flagging moments of
her life. Her pupils were no longer featureless beings, the sole end of
whose existence was to give trouble; girl-children and budding womanhood
had circled about her; the lips which recited lessons made unconscious
music; the eyes, dark or sunny, laughed with secret foresight of love to
come. Kindly affection to one and all grew warm within her; what had
been only languid preferences developed in an hour to little less than
attachments, and dislikes softened to pity. The girls who gave promise
of beauty and tenderness she looked upon with the eyes of a sister;
their lot it would be to know the ecstasy of whispered vows, to give and
to receive that happiness which is not to be named lest the gods become
envious. Voices singing together in the class practice which had ever
been a weariness, stirred her to a passion of delight; it was the choral
symphony of love's handmaidens. Did they see a change in her? Emily
fancied that the elder girls looked at each other and smiled and
exchanged words in an undertone--about her.

It was well to have told Wilfrid all her secrets, yet in the impatience
of waiting she had tremors of misgiving; would he, perchance, think as
she so long had thought, that to speak to anyone, however near, of that
bygone woe and shame was a sin against the pieties of nature, least of
all excusable when committed at the bidding of her own desires? He would
never breathe to her a word which could reveal such a thought, but
Wilfrid, with his susceptibility to the beautiful in character, his
nature so intensely in sympathy with her own, might more or less
consciously judge her to have fallen from fidelity to the high ideal.
Could he have learnt the story of her life, she still persevering on her
widowed way, would he not have deemed her nobler? Aid against this
subtlety of conscience rose in the form of self-reproof administered by
that joyous voice of nature which no longer timidly begged a hearing,
but came as a mandate from an unveiled sovereign. With what right, pray,
did she desire to show in Wilfrid's eyes as other than she was? That
part in life alone becomes us which is the very expression of ourselves.
What merit can there be in playing the votary of an ascetic conviction
when the heart is bursting with its stifled cry for light and warmth,
for human joy, for the golden fruit of the tree of life? She had been
sincere in her renunciation; the way of worthiness was to cherish a
sincerity as complete now that her soul flamed to the bliss which fate
once more offered her.

The hours passed slowly; how long the night would be if Wilfrid neither
wrote to her nor came. But he had written; at eight o'clock the glad
signal of the postman drew her to the door of her room where she stood
trembling whilst someone went to the letter-box, and--oh, joy! ascended
the stairs. It was her letter; because her hands were too unsteady to
hold it for reading, she knelt by a chair, like a child with a new
picture-book, and spread the sheet open. And, having read it twice, she
let her face fall upon her palms, to repeat to herself the words which
danced fire-like b re her darkened eyes. He wrote rather sadly, but she
would not have had it otherwise, for the sadness was of love's innermost
heart, which is the shrine of mortality.

As Emily knelt thus by the chair there came another knock at the
house-door, the knock of a visitor. She did not hear it, nor yet the tap
at her own door which followed. She was startled to consciousness by her
landlady's voice.

'There's a lady wishes to see you, Miss Hood.'

'A lady?' Emily repeated in surprise. Then it occurred to her that it
must be Mrs. Baxendale, who knew her address and was likely to be in
London at this time of the year. 'Does she give any name?'

No name. Emily requested that the visitor should be introduced.

Not Mrs. Baxendale, but a face at first barely remembered, then growing
with suggestiveness upon Emily's gaze until all was known save the name
attached to it. A face which at present seemed to bear the pale signs of
suffering, though it smiled; a beautiful visage of high meanings,
impressive beneath its crown of dark hair. It smiled and still smiled;
the eyes looked searchingly.

'You do not remember me, Miss Hood?'

'Indeed, I remember you--your face, your voice. But your name--? You are
Mrs. Baxendale's niece.'

'Yes; Miss Redwing.'

'O, how could I forget!'

Emily became silent. The eyes that searched her so were surely kind, but
it was the time of fears. Impossible that so strange a visit should be
unconnected with her fate. And the voice thrilled upon her strung nerves
ominously; the lips she watched were so eloquent of repressed feeling.
Why should this lady come to her? Their acquaintance had been so very
slight.

She murmured an invitation to be seated.

'For a moment,' returned Beatrice, 'you must wonder to see me. But I
think you remember that I was a friend of the Athels. I am come with Mr.
Athel's leave--Mr. Wilfrid.'

Emily was agitated and could not smooth her features.

'Oh, don't think I bring you bad news!' pursued the other quickly,
leaning a little forward and again raising her eyes. She had dropped
them on the mention of Wilfrid's name. 'I have come, in fact, to put Mr.
Athel at ease in his mind.' She laughed nervously. 'He and I have been
close friends for a very long time, indeed since we were all but
children, and I--he--you won't misunderstand? He has told me--me alone
as yet--of what has happened, of the great good fortune that has come to
him so unexpectedly. If you knew the terms of our friendship you would
understand how natural it was for him to take me into his confidence,
Miss Hood. And I begged him to let me visit you, because'--again she
laughed in the same nervous way--'because he was in a foolish anxiety
lest you might have vanished; I told him it was best that he should have
the evidence of a very practical person's senses that you were really
here and that he hadn't only dreamt it. And as we did know each other,
you see--You will construe my behaviour kindly, will you not?'

'Surely I will, Miss Redwing,' Emily responded warmly. 'How else could I
meet your own great kindness?'

'I feared so many things; even at the door I almost turned away. There
seemed so little excuse for my visit. It was like intruding upon you.
But Mr. Athel assured me that I should not be unwelcome.'

Emily, overcome by the sense of relief after her apprehensions, gave
free utterance to the warm words in which her joy voiced itself. She
forgot all that was strange in Beatrice's manner or attributed it merely
to timidity. Sympathy just now was like sunshine to her; she could not
inquire whence or why it came, but was content to let it bathe her in
its divine solace.

'If you knew how it has flattered me!' Beatrice continued, with a
semblance of light-hearted goodness which her hearer had no thought of
criticising. 'It is the final proof of Mr. Athel's good opinion. You
know his poor opinion of conventional people and conventional behaviour.
He is determined that no one shall be told till--till after
Wednesday--making me the sole exception, you see. But seriously I am
glad he did so, and that I have been able to meet you again just at this
time. Now I can assure him that you are indeed a living being, and that
there is no danger whatever of your disappearing.'

Emily did not join the musical laugh, but her heart was full, and she
just laid her hand on that of Beatrice.

'It was only for a moment,' the latter said, rising as she felt the
touch. 'This is no hour for paying visits, and, indeed, I have to hurry
back again. I should like to--only to say that you have my very kindest
wishes. You forgive my coming; you forgive my hastening away so?'

'I feel I ought to thank you more,' broke from Emily's lips. 'To me,
believe, it is all very like a dream. O, it was kind of you to come! You
can't think,' she added, with only apparent irrelevance, 'how often I
have recalled your beautiful singing; I have always thought of you with
gratitude for that deep pleasure you gave me.'

'O, you shall hear me sing again!' laughed Beatrice. 'Ask Mr. Athel to
tell you something about that. Indeed, it must be good-bye.'

They took each other's hands, but for Emily it was not sufficient; she
stepped nearer, offering her lips.

Beatrice kissed her.

CHAPTER XXV

A FAMILY CONCLAVE

At eleven o'clock on Wednesday morning Beatrice called at the Athels'
house. Receiving the expected information that Wilfrid was not at home,
she requested that Mr. Athel senior might not be disturbed and went to
Wilfrid's study.

Alone in the room, she took from her hand-bag a little packet addressed
to Wilfrid on which she had written the word 'private,' and laid it on
the writing-table.

She appeared to have given special attention to her toilet this morning;
her attire was that of a lady of fashion, rich, elaborate, devised with
consummate art, its luxury draping well the superb form wherein blended
with such strange ardour the flames of heroism and voluptuousness. Her
moving made the air delicate with faint perfume; her attitude as she
laid down the packet and kept her hand upon it for a moment was
self-conscious, but nobly so; if an actress, she was cast by nature for
the great parts and threw her soul into the playing of them.

She lingered by the table, touching objects with the tips of her gloved
fingers, as if lovingly and sadly; at length she seated herself in
Wilfrid's chair and gazed about the room with languid, wistful eyes. Her
bosom heaved; once or twice a sigh trembled to all but a sob. She lost
herself in reverie. Then the clock near her chimed silverly half-past
eleven. Beatrice drew a deep breath, rose slowly, and slowly went from
the room.

A cab took her to Mrs. Baxendale's. That lady was at home and alone,
reading in fact; she closed her book as Beatrice entered, and a placid
smile accompanied her observation of her niece's magnificence.

'I was coming to make inquiries,' she said. 'Mrs. Birks gave me a
disturbing account of you yesterday. Has your headache gone?'

'Over, all over,' Beatrice replied quietly. 'They make too much of it.'

'I think it is you who make too little of it. You are wretchedly pale.'

'Am I? That will soon go. I think I must leave town before long. Advise
me; where shall I go?'

'But you don't think of going before--?'

'Yes, quite soon.'

'You are mysterious,' remarked Mrs. Baxendale, raising her eyebrows a
little as she smiled.

'Well, aunt, I will be so no longer. I want to cross-examine you, if you
will let me. Do you promise to answer?'

'To the best of my poor ability.'

'Then the first question shall be this,--when did you last hear of
Emily Hood?'

'Of Emily Hood?'

Mrs. Baxendale had the habit of controlling the display of her emotions,
it was part of her originality. But it was evident that the question
occasioned her extreme surprise, and not a little trouble.

'Yes, will you tell me?' said Beatrice, in a tone of calm interest.

'It's a strange question. Still, if you really desire to know, I heard
from her about six months ago.'

'She was in London then?'

Mrs. Baxendale had quite ceased to smile. When any puzzling matter
occupied her thought she always frowned very low; at present her frown
indicated anxiety.

'What reason have you to think she was in London, Beatrice?'

'Only her being here now.'

Beatrice said it with a show of pleasant artfulness, holding her head
aside a little and smiling into her aunt's eyes. Mrs. Baxendale relaxed
her frown and looked away.

'Have you seen her lately?' Beatrice continued.

'I have not soon her for years.'

'Ah! But you have corresponded with her?'

'At very long intervals.'

Before Beatrice spoke again, her aunt resumed.

'Don't lay traps for me, my dear. Suppose you explain at once your
interest in Emily Hood's whereabouts.'

'Yes, I wish to do so. I have come to you to talk about it, aunt,
because I know you take things quietly, and just now I want a little
help of the kind you can give. You have guessed, of course, what I am
going to tell you,--part of it at least. Wilfrid and she have met.'

'They have met,' repeated the other, musingly, her face still rather
anxious. 'In what way?'

'By chance, pure chance.'

'By chance? It was not, I suppose, by chance that you heard of the
meeting?'

'No. Wilfrid told me of it. He told me on Sunday--'

Her voice was a little uncertain.

'Give me your hand, dear,' said Mrs. Baxendale. 'There, now tell me the
rest.'

Beatrice half sobbed.

'Yes, I can now more easily,' she continued, with hurried utterance.
'Your hand is just what I wanted; it is help, dear help. But you mustn't
think I am weak; I could have stood alone. Yes, he told me on Sunday.
And that of course was the end.'

'At his desire?'

'His and mine. He was honest with me. It was better than such
discoveries when it would have been too late.'

'And he is going to marry her?'

'They were married an hour ago.'

Mrs. Baxendale looked with grave inquiry into Beatrice's face.
Incredulity was checked by what she saw there. She averted her eyes
again, and both were silent for awhile.

'So it is all well over, you see,' Beatrice said at length, trying at
light-heartedness.

'Over, it seems. As to the well or ill, I can't say.'

'Surely well,' rejoined Beatrice. 'He loves her, and he would never have
loved me. We can't help it. She has suffered dreadful things; you see it
in her face.'

'Her face?'

'I went to see her on Monday evening,' Beatrice explained, with
simplicity, though her lips quivered. 'I asked leave of Wilfrid to do
so; he had told me all her story, as be had just heard it from herself,
and I--indeed I was curious to see her again. Then there was another
reason. If I saw her and brought her to believe that Wilfrid and I were
merely intimate friends, as we used to be--how much easier it would make
everything. You understand me, aunt?'

Mrs. Baxendale was again looking at her with grave, searching eyes, eyes
which began to glimmer a little when the light caught them. Beatrice's
hand she held pressed more and more closely in both her own. She made no
reply to the last question, and the speaker went on with a voice which
lost its clearness, and seemed to come between parched lips.

'You see how easy that makes everything? I want your help, of course; I
told Wilfrid that this was how I should act. It is very simple; let us
say that I prefer to be thought an unselfish woman: anyone can be
jealous and malicious. You are to think that I care as little as it
would seem; I don't yet know how I am to live, but of course I shall, it
will come in time. It was better they should be married in this way.
Then he must come back after the holidays, and everything be smooth for
him. That will be our work, yours and mine, dear aunt. You understand
me? You will talk to Mrs. Birks; it will be better from you; and then
Mr. Athel shall be told. Yes, it is hard for me, but perhaps not quite
in the way you think. I don't hate her, indeed I don't. If you knew that
story, which you never can I No, I don't hate her. I kissed her, aunt,
with my lips--indeed. She couldn't find me out; I acted too well for
that. But I couldn't have done it if I had hated her. She is so altered
from what she was. You know that I liked her years ago. She interested
me in a strange, strange way; it seems to me now that I foresaw how her
fate would be connected with mine. I knew that Wilfrid loved her before
anyone else had dreamt of such a thing. Now promise your help.'

'Have they gone away?' her aunt asked.

'I don't know. It is likely.'

Her face went white to the lips; for a moment she quivered.

'Beatrice, stay with me,' said Mrs. Baxendale. 'Stay 'with me here for a
day or two.'

'Willingly. I wished it. Mrs. Birks is all kindness, but I find it hard
to talk, and she won't let me be by myself. Don't think I am ill--no,
indeed no! It's only rest that I want. It seems a long time since
Sunday. But you haven't yet promised me, aunt. It will be much harder if
I have to do everything myself. I promised him that everything should be
made smooth. I want to show him that my--that my love was worth having.
It's more than all women would do, isn't it, aunt? Of course it isn't
only that; there's the pleasure of doing something for him. And he
cannot help being grateful to me as long as he lives. Suppose I had gone
and told her She would never have married him. She was never beautiful,
you know, and now her face is dreadfully worn, but I think I understand
why he loves her. Of course you cannot know her as well as I do. And you
will help me, aunt?'

'Are you perfectly sure that they have been married this morning?' Mrs.
Baxendale asked, with quiet earnestness.

'Sure, quite sure.'

'In any other case I don't know whether I should have done as you wish.'

'You would have tried to prevent it? Oh no, you are too wise! After all
this time, and he loves her as much as ever. Don't you see how foolish
it would be to fret about it? It is fete, that's all. You know we all
have our fate. Do you know what I used to think mine would he? I feared
madness; my poor father--But I shall not fear that now; I have gone
through too much; my mind has borne it. But I must have rest, and I can
only rest if I know that you are helping me. You promise?'

'I will do my best, dear.'

'And your best is best indeed, aunt. You will go to Mrs. Birks and tell
her where I am? The sooner you speak to her the better. I will lie down.
If you knew how worn-out I feel!'

She rose, but stood with difficulty. Mrs. Baxendale put her arm about
her and kissed her cheek. Then she led her to another room.

Tension in Beatrice was nearing the point of fever. She had begun the
conversation with every appearance of calmness; now she was only to be
satisfied by immediate action towards the end she had in view, every
successive minute of delay was an added torment. She pressed her aunt to
go to Mrs. Birks forthwith; that alone could soothe her. Mrs. Baxendale
yielded and set out.

But it was not to Mrs. Birks that she paid her first visit. Though it
was clear that Beatrice firmly believed all she said, Mrs. Baxendale
could not accept this as positive assurance; before taking upon herself
to announce such a piece of news she felt the need of some further
testimony. She had a difficulty in reconciling precipitate action of
this kind with Wilfrid's character as it had of late years developed
itself; political, even social, ambition had become so pronounced in him
that it was difficult to imagine him turning with such sudden vehemence
from the path in which every consideration of interest would tend to
hold him. The best of women worship success, and though Mrs. Baxendale
well knew that Wilfrid's aims had suffered a degradation, she could not,
even apart from her feeling for Beatrice, welcome his return to the high
allegiance of former days, when it would surely check or altogether
terminate a brilliant career. The situation had too fantastic a look.
Could it be that Beatrice was suffering from some delusion? Had a chance
discovery of Emily Hood's proximity, together perhaps with some
ambiguous behaviour on Wilfrid's part, affected her mind? It was an
extreme supposition, but on the whole as easy of acceptance as the story
Beatrice had poured forth.

In pursuit of evidence Mrs. Baxendale drove to the Athels'. It was about
luncheon-time. She inquired for Wilfrid, and heard with mingled feelings
that he was at home. She found him in his study; he had before him a
little heap of letters, the contents of a packet he had found on his
table on entering a quarter of an hour before.

Mrs. Baxendale regarded him observantly. The results of her examination
led her to come to the point at once.

'I have just left Beatrice,' she said. 'She has been telling me an
extraordinary story. Do you know what it was?'

'She has told you the truth,' Wilfrid replied, simply.

'And you were married this morning?'

Wilfrid bent his head in assent.

Mrs. Baxendale seated herself.

'My dear Wilfrid,' were her next words, 'you have been guilty of what is
commonly called a dishonourable action.'

'I fear I have. I can only excuse myself by begging you to believe that
no other course was open to me. I have simply cut a hard knot. It was
better than wasting my own life and others' lives in despair at its
hopelessness.'

Wilfrid was collected. The leap taken, he felt his foot once more on
firm ground. He felt, too, that he had left behind him much of which he
was heartily ashamed. He was in no mood to feign an aspect of
contrition.

'You will admit,' observed the lady, 'that this Cutting of the knot
makes a rather harsh severance.'

'It would be impertinent to say that I am sorry for Beatrice. Her
behaviour to me has been incredibly magnanimous, and I feel sure that
her happiness as well as my own has been consulted. I don't know in what
sense she has spoken to you--'

'Very nobly, be sure of it.'

'I can only thank her and reverence her.'

Mrs. Baxendale remained for a moment in thought.

'Well,' she resumed, 'you know that it is not my part to make useless
scenes. I began with my hardest words, and they must stand. Beatrice
will not die of a broken heart, happily, and if your wife is one half as
noble you are indeed a fortunate man. Perhaps we had better talk no more
at present; it is possible you have acted rightly, and I must run no
risk of saying unkind things. Is your father informed?'

'Not yet.'

'You are leaving town?'

'This afternoon.'

'To go to a distance?'

'No. I shall be in town daily.'

'You doubtless inform your father before you leave?'

'I shall do so.'

'Then we will say good-bye.'

Mrs. Baxendale gave her hand. She did not smile, but just shook her head
as she looked Wilfrid steadily in the face.

It was later in the afternoon when she called upon Mrs. Birks. She was
conducted to that lady's boudoir, and there found Mr. Athel senior in
colloquy with his sister. The subject of the conversation was
unmistakable.

'You know?' asked Mrs. Birks, with resignation, as soon as the door was
closed behind the visitor.

'I have come to talk it over with you.'

Mr. Athel was standing with his hands clasped behind him; he was rather
redder in the face than usual, and had clearly been delivering himself
of ample periods.

'Really, Mrs. Baxendale,' he began, 'I have a difficulty in expressing
myself on the subject. The affair is simply monstrous. It indicates a
form of insanity. I--uh--I--uh--in truth I don't know from what point to
look at it.'

'Where is Beatrice?' Mrs. Birks asked.

'She will stay with me for a day or two,' replied Mrs. Baxendale.

'How--how is she?' inquired Mr. Athel, sympathetically.

'Upset, of course, but not seriously, I hope.'

'Really,' Mrs. Birks exclaimed, 'Wilfrid might have had some
consideration for other people. Hero are the friendships of a lifetime
broken up on his account.'

'I don't know that that is exactly the point of view,' remarked her
brother, judicially. 'One doesn't expect such things to seriously
weigh--I mean, of course, when there is reason on the man's side. What
distresses me is the personal recklessness of the step.'

'Perhaps that is not so great as it appears,' put in Mrs. Baxendale,
quietly.

'You defend him?' exclaimed Mrs. Birks.

'I'm not sure that I should do so, but I want to explain how Beatrice
regards it.'

'_She_ defends him?' cried Mr. Athel.

'Yes, she does. At present there is only one thing I fear for her, and
that is a refusal on your part to carry out her wishes. Beatrice has
made up her mind that as little trouble as possible shall result. I
bring, in fact, the most urgent request from her that you, Mr. Athel,
and you, Mrs. Birks, will join in a sort of conspiracy to make things
smooth for Wilfrid. She desires--it is no mere whim, I believe her
health depends upon it--that no obstacle whatever may be put in the way
of Wilfrid's return to society with his wife. We are to act as though
this old engagement had come to an end by mutual agreement, and as
approving the marriage. This is my niece's serious desire.'

'My dear Mrs. Baxendale!' murmured the listening lady. 'How very
extraordinary! Are you quite sure--'

'Oh, this surely is out of the question,' broke in her brother. 'That
Beatrice should make such a request is very admirable, but I--uh--I
really--'

Mr. Athel paused, as if expecting and hoping that someone would defeat
his objections.

'I admit it sounds rather unreal,' pursued Mrs. Baxendale, 'but
fortunately I can give you good evidence of her sincerity. She has
visited the lady who is now Mrs. Athel, and that with the express
purpose of representing herself as nothing more than a friend of
Wilfrid's. You remember she had a slight acquaintance with Miss Hood.
After this I don't see how we can refuse to aid her plan.'

'She visited Miss Hood?' asked Mrs. Birks, with the mild amazement of a
lady who respects her emotions. 'Does Wilfrid know that?'

'Beatrice asked his permission to go.'

'This is altogether beyond me,' confessed Mr. Athel, drawing down his
waistcoat and taking a turn across the room. Of course, if they have
been amusing themselves with a kind of game, well, we have nothing to do
but to regret that our invitation to join in it has come rather late.
For my own part, I was disposed to take a somewhat more serious view. Of
course it's no good throwing away one's indignation. I--uh--but what is
your own attitude with regard to this proposal, Mrs. Baxendale?'

'I think I must be content to do my niece's bidding,' said the lady
addressed.

'There's one thing, it seems to me, being lost sight of,' came from Mrs.
Birks, in the disinterested tone of a person who wishes to deliver with
all clearness an unpleasant suggestion. 'We are very much in the dark as
to Miss Hood's--I should say Mrs. Athel's--antecedents. You yourself,'
she regarded Mrs. Baxendale, 'confess that her story is very mysterious.
If we are asked to receive her, really--doesn't this occur to you?'

At this moment the door opened and amid general silence Beatrice came
forward. Mrs. Birks rose quickly and met her. Mrs. Baxendale understood
at a glance what had brought her niece here. Agitation had grown
insupportable. It was not in Beatrice's character to lie still whilst
others decided matters in which she had supreme interest. The more
difficult her position the stronger she found herself to support it. The
culmination of the drama could not be acted with her behind the scenes.

Mrs. Birks, with a whispered word or two, led her to a seat. Beatrice
looked at her aunt, then at Mr. Athel. The proud beauty of her face was
never more impressive. She smiled as if some pleasant trifle were under
discussion.

'I heard your voice as I came in,' she said to Mrs. Birks, bending
towards her gracefully. 'Were you on my side?'

'I'm afraid not, dear, just then,' was the reply, given in a
corresponding tone of affectionateness.

'You will tell me what you were saying?'

Mr. Athel looked as uncomfortable as even an English gentleman can in
such a situation. Mrs. Baxendale seemed to be finding amusement in
observing him. The lady appealed to plucked for a moment at her sleeve.

'May I make a guess?' Beatrice pursued. 'It had something to do with the
private circumstances of the lady Mr. Wilfrid Athel has married?'

'Yes, Beatrice, it had.'

'Then let me help you over that obstacle, dear Mrs. Birks. I have heard
from herself a full explanation of what you are uneasy about, and if I
were at liberty to repeat it you would know that she has been dreadfully
unhappy and has endured things which would have killed most women, all
because of her loyalty and purity of heart. I think I may ask you to
give as much effect to my words as if you knew everything. Mrs. Athel is
in every respect worthy to become a member of your family.'

Her voice began to express emotion,

'Mr. Athel, _you_ are not against me? It is so hard to find no sympathy.
I have set my heart on this. Perhaps I seem to ask a great deal, but
I--have I not some little--'

'My dear Miss Redwing,' broke in Mr. Athel then, correcting himself, 'My
dear Beatrice, no words could convey the anxiety I feel to be of service
to you. You see how difficult it is for me to speak decidedly, but I
assure you that I could not possibly act in opposition to your expressed
desire. Perhaps it would be better for me to withdraw. I am sure these
ladies--'

His speech hung in mid-air, and he stood nervously tapping his fingers
with his eyeglass.

'No, please remain,' exclaimed Beatrice. 'Aunt, you are not against me?
Mrs. Birks, you won't refuse to believe what I have told you?'

The two ladies glanced at each other. In Mrs. Baxendale's look there was
appeal.

'Indeed, I believe you implicitly, my dear Beatrice,' said Mrs. Birks.
'My brother is the one to decide. You are mistaken in thinking I oppose
your wish. How could I?'

The last words were very sweetly said. With a smile which did not pass
beyond her lips, Beatrice rose from her seat and held her hand to Mr.
Athel.

'Then it is understood? When Wilfrid brings his wife to you, you receive
her with all kindness. I have your promise?'

Mr. Athel drew himself up very straight, pressed the offered hand and
said:

'It shall be as you wish.' ...

Beatrice returned with Mrs. Baxendale. Her desire to be alone was
respected during the rest of the day. Going to her the last thing at
night, her aunt was reassured; weariness had followed upon nervous
strain, and the beautiful eyes seemed longing for sleep.

But in the morning appearances were not so hopeful. The night had after
all been a troubled one: Beatrice declined breakfast and, having dressed
with effort, lay on a sofa, her eyes closed.

At noon Mrs. Baxendale came near and said gently:

'Dear, you are not going to be ill?'

The sufferer stirred a little, looked in her aunt's face, rose to a
sitting position.

'Ill?' She laughed in a forced way. 'O, that would never do! Ill after
all? Why, that would spoil everything. Are you going out this morning?'

'Certainly not. I should only have done some idle shopping.'

'Then you shall do the shopping, and I will go with you. Yes, yes, I
will go! It is the only way. Let us go where we shall see people; I wish
to. I will be ready in five minutes.'

'But, Beatrice--.'

'O, don't fear my looks; you shall see if I betray myself! Quick,
quick,--to Regent Street, Bond Street, where we shall gee people! I
shall be ready before you.'

They set forth, and Beatrice had no illness.

CHAPTER XXVI

MID-DAY

Once more at The Firs. Wilfrid had decided to make this his abode. It
was near enough to London to allow of his going backwards and forwards
as often as might be necessary; his father's town house offered the
means of change for Emily, and supplied him with a _pied-a-terre_ in
time of session. By limiting his attendance at the House as far as
decency would allow, he was able to enjoy with small interruption the
quiet of his home in Surrey, and a growing certainty that the life of
the present Parliament would be short encouraged him in looking forward
to the day when politics would no longer exist for him.

He and Emily established themselves at The Firs towards the end of
December, having spent a week with Mr. Athel on their return from the
Continent. Emily's health had improved, but there was no likelihood that
she would ever be other than a delicate flower, to be jealously guarded
from the sky's ruder breath by him to whom she was a life within life.
Ambition as he formerly understood it had no more meaning for Wilfrid;
the fine ardour of his being rejected grosser nourishment and burned in
altar-flame towards the passion-pale woman whom he after all called
wife. Emily was an unfailing inspiration; by her side the nobler zeal of
his youth renewed itself; in the light of her pure soul he saw the world
as poetry and strove for that detachment of the intellect which in Emily
was a gift of nature.

She, Emily--Emily Athel, as she joyed to write herself--moved in her new
sphere like a spirit humbled by victory over fate. It was a mild winter;
the Surrey hills were tender against the brief daylight, and gardens
breathed the freshness of evergreens. When the sun trembled over the
landscape for a short hour, Emily loved to stray as far as that hollow
on the heath where she had sat with Wilfrid years ago, and heard him for
the first time speak freely of his aims and his hopes. That spot was
sacred; as she stood there beneath the faint blue of the winter sky, all
the exquisite sadness of life, the memory of those whom death had led to
his kindly haven, the sorrows of new-born love, the dear heartache for
woe passed into eternity, touched the deepest fountains of her nature
and made dim her eyes. She would not have had life other than it was
given to her, for she had learned the secrets of infinite passion in the
sunless valleys of despair.

She rested. In the last few months she had traversed a whole existence;
repose was needful that she might assimilate all her new experiences and
range in due order the gifts which joy had lavishly heaped upon her. The
skies of the south, the murmur of blue seas on shores of glorious name,
the shrines of Art, the hallowed scenes where earth's greatest have
loved and wrought, these were no longer a dream with her bodily eyes she
had looked upon Greece and Italy, and to have done so was a
consecration, it cast a light upon her brows. 'Talk to me of Rome;'
those were always her words when Wilfrid came to her side in the
evening. 'Talk to me of Rome, as you alone can.' And as Wilfrid recalled
their life in the world's holy of holies, she closed her eyes for the
full rapture of the inner light, and her heart sang praise.

Wilfrid was awed by his blessedness. There were times when he scarcely
dared to take in his own that fine-moulded hand which was the symbol of
life made perfect; Emily uttered thoughts which made him fear to profane
her purity by his touch. She realised to the uttermost his ideal of
womanhood, none the less so that it seemed no child would be born of her
to trouble the exclusiveness of their love. He clad her in queenly
garments and did homage at her feet. Her beauty was all for him, for
though Emily could grace any scene she found no pleasure in society, and
the hours of absence from home were to Wilfrid full of anxiety to
return. All their plans were for solitude; life was too short for more
than the inevitable concessions to the outside world.

But one morning in February, Emily's eye fell upon an announcement in
the newspaper which excited in her a wish to go up to town. Among the
list of singers at a concert to be given that day she had caught the
name of Miss Beatrice Redwing. It was Saturday; Wilfrid had no occasion
for leaving home and already they had enjoyed in advance the two
unbroken days.

'But I should indeed like to hear her,' Emily said, 'and she seems to
sing so rarely.'

'She has only just returned to England,' Wilfrid remarked

They had heard of Beatrice having been in Florence a week or two prior
to their own stay there. She was travelling with the Baxendales. Emily
was anxious to meet her, and Wilfrid had held out a hope that this might
come about in Italy, but circumstances had proved adverse.

'Have you seen her?' Emily inquired.

Her husband had not. He seemed at first a little disinclined to go up
for the concert, but on Emily's becoming silent he hastened to give a
cheerful acquiescence.

'Couldn't we see her to-morrow?' she went on to ask.

'No doubt we can. It's only the facing of my aunt's drawing-room on a
Sunday afternoon.'

'O, surely that is needless, Wilfrid? Couldn't we go and see her
quietly? She would be at home in the morning, I should think.'

'I should think so. We'll make inquiries to-night.'

They left home early in the afternoon and procured tickets on their way
from the station to Mr. Athel's. Their arrival being quite unexpected,
they found that Mr. Athel had loft town for a day or two. It was all
that Emily needed for the completing of her pleasure; her father-in-law
was scrupulously polite in his behaviour to her, but the politeness fell
a little short as yet of entire ease, and conversation with him involved
effort. She ran a risk of letting Wilfrid perceive the gladness with
which she discovered an empty house; he did, in fact, attribute to its
true cause the light-heartedness she showed as they sat together at
dinner, and smiled to think that he himself shared in the feeling of
relief. There were reasons why he could not look forward to the evening
with unalloyed happiness, but the unwonted gaiety which shone on Emily's
face, and gave a new melody to her voice, moved him to tenderness and
gratitude. He felt that it would be well to listen again to the music of
that strong heart whose pain had been his bliss. He overcame his ignoble
anxieties and went to the concert as to a sacred office.

Their seats, owing to lateness in applying for them, were not in the
best part of the hall; immediately behind them was the first row of a
cheaper section, and two men of indifferent behaviour were seated there
within ear-shot; they were discussing the various names upon the
programme as if for the enlightenment of their neighbours. When Emily
had been sitting for a few minutes, she found that it had been unwise to
leave her mantle in the cloak-room; there was a bad draught. Wilfrid
went to recover it. Whilst waiting, Emily became aware that the men
behind her were talking of Miss Redwing; she listened.

'She's married, I think, eh?' said one.

'Was to have been, you mean. Why, wasn't it you told me the story? O no,
it was Drummond. Drummond knows her people, I think.'

'What story, eh?'

'Why, she was to have married a Member of Parliament; what the deuce was
his name? Something that reminded me of a race-horse, I remember. Was it
Blair? No--Athel! That's the name.'

'Why didn't it come off, then?'

'Oh, the honourable member found somebody he liked better.'

It was not the end of the conversation, but just then the conductor rose
in his place and there was 'hushing.' Wilfrid returned at the same
moment. He noticed that Emily shivered as he put the covering on her
shoulders. When he was seated she looked at him so strangely that he
asked her in a whisper what was the matter. Emily shook her head and
seemed to fix her attention on the music.

Beatrice Redwing was the third singer to come forward. Whilst she sang
Emily frequently looked at her husband. Wilfrid did not notice it, he
was absorbed in listening. Towards the end Emily, too, lost thought of
everything save the magic with which the air was charged. There was
vociferous demand for an encore and Beatrice gave another song.

When the mid-way interval was reached Emily asked her husband if he
would leave the hall. She gave no reason and Wilfrid did not question
her. When they were in the carriage she said the draught had been too
severe. Wilfrid kept silence; he was troubled by inexplicable
misgivings.

Servants hastened to light the drawing-room on their arrival earlier
than was expected. Emily threw off her wraps and seated herself near the
fire.

'Do you suffer from the chill?' Wilfrid asked, approaching her as if
with diffidence.

She turned her face to him, gazing with the sadness which was so much
more natural to her than the joy of two hours ago.

'It was not the draught that made me come away,' she said with gentle
directness. 'I must tell you what it was, Wilfrid. I cannot keep any of
my thoughts from you.'

'Tell me,' he murmured, standing by her.

She related the substance of the conversation she had overheard, always
keeping her eyes on him.

'Is it true?'

'It is true, Emily.'

Between him and her there could be no paltry embarrassments. A direct
question touching both so deeply could be answered only in one way. If
Emily had suffered from a brief distrust, his look and voice, sorrowful
but frank as though he faced Omniscience, restored her courage at once.
There might be grief henceforth, but it was shared between them.

He spoke on and made all plain. Then at the last:

'I felt it to be almost impossible that you should net some day know. I
could not tell you, perhaps on her account as much as on my own. But now
I may say what I had no words for before. She loved me, and I believed
that I could return her love. When I met you, how could I marry her? A
stranger sees my conduct--you have heard how. It is you who alone can
judge me.'

'And she came to me in that way,' Emily murmured. 'She could not only
lose _you_, but give her hand to the woman who robbed her!'

'And take my part with everyone, force herself to show a bright face, do
her best to have it understood that it was she herself who broke off the
marriage--all this.'

'Dare I go to her, Wilfrid? Would it be cruel to go to her? I wish to
speak--oh, not one word that would betray my knowledge, but to say that
I love her. Do you think I may go?'

'I cannot advise you, Emily. Wait until the morning and do then what you
think best.'

She decided to go. Beatrice still lived with Mrs. Birks, and it was
probable that she would be alone on Sunday morning. It proved to be so.

Wilfrid waited more than an hour for Emily's return. When at length she
entered to him, he saw that there was deep content on her countenance.
Emily embraced her husband and laid her head upon his breast. He could
hear her sigh gently.

'She wishes to see you, Wilfrid.'

'She received you kindly?'

'I will tell you all when I have had time to think of it. But she was
sorry you did not come with me. Will you go? She will be alone this
afternoon.'

They held each other in silence. Then Emily, raising an awed face, asked
softly:

'Where does she find her strength? Is her nature so spotless that
self-sacrifice is her highest joy? Wilfrid, I could have asked pardon at
her feet; my heart bled for her.'

'Dearest, you least of all should wonder at the strength which comes of
high motive.'

'Oh, but to surrender you to another and to witness that other's
happiness! Was not my self-denial perhaps a form of selfishness? I only
shrank from love because I dreaded the reproaches of my own heart; I did
good to no one, was only anxious to save myself. She--I dare not think
of it! My nature is so weak. Take your love from me and you take my
life.'

Wilfrid's heart leaped with the wild joy of a mountain torrent.

'She will not always be alone,' he said, perhaps with the readiness of
the supremely happy to prophesy smooth things for all. There came the
answer of gentle reproach:

'After loving you, Wilfrid?'

'Beautiful, that is how it seems to you. There is second love, often
truer than the first.'

'Then the first was not love indeed! If I had never seen you again, what
meaning would love have ever had for me apart from your name? I only
dreamed of it till I knew you, then it was love first and last. Wilfrid,
my own, my husband--my love till I die!' ....

Book of the day: