Long ere he thus came to a close, Wingfold was blind to all and every individuality before him–felt only the general suffering of the human soul, and the new-born hope for it that lay in the story of the ideal man, the human God. He did not see that Helen’s head was down on the book-board. She was sobbing convulsively. In some way the word had touched her, and had unsealed the fountain of tears, if not of faith. Neither did he see the curl on the lip of Bascombe, or the glance of annoyance which, every now and then, he cast upon the bent head beside him. “What on earth are you crying about? It is all in the way of his business, you know,” said Bascombe’s eyes, but Helen did not hear them. One or two more in the congregation were weeping, and here and there shone a face in which the light seemed to prevent the tears. Polwarth shone and Rachel wept. For the rest, the congregation listened only with varying degrees of attention and indifference. The larger portion looked as if neither Wingfold nor any other body ever meant anything–at least in the pulpit.
The moment Wingfold reached the vestry, he hurried off the garments of his profession, sped from the Abbey, and all but ran across the church-yard to his lodging. There he shut himself up in his chamber, fearful lest he should have said more than he had yet a right to say, and lest ebbing emotion should uncover the fact that he had been but “fired by the running of his own wheels,” and not inspired by the guide of “the fiery-wheeled throne, the cherub Contemplation.” There, from the congregation, from the church, from the sermon, from the past altogether, he turned aside his face and would forget them quite.
What had he to do with the thing that was done,–done with, and gone, either into the treasury or the lumber-room, of creation? Towards the hills of help he turned his face–to the summits over whose tops he looked for the dayspring from on high to break forth. If only Christ would come to him!–Do what he might, however, his thoughts WOULD wander back to the great gothic gulf into which he had been pouring out his soul, and the greater human gulfs that opened into the ancient pile, whose mouths were the faces that hid the floor beneath them–until at length he was altogether vexed with himself for being interested in what he had done, instead of absorbed in what he had yet to do. He left therefore his chamber, and placed himself at a side-table in his sitting-room, while his landlady prepared the other for his dinner. She too had been at church that morning, whence it came that she moved about and set the things on the table with unusual softness, causing him no interruption while he wrote down a line here and there of what afterwards grew into the following verses–born in the effort to forget the things that were behind, and reach forth after the things that lay before him.
Yes, Master, when thou comest thou shalt find A little faith on earth, if I am here! Thou know’st how oft I turn to thee my mind, How sad I wait until thy face appear!
Hast thou not ploughed my thorny ground full sore, And from it gathered many stones and sherds? Plough, plough and harrow till it needs no more– Then sow thy mustard-seed, and send thy birds.
I love thee, Lord; and if I yield to fears, Nor trust with triumph that pale doubt defies, Remember, Lord, ’tis nigh two thousand years, And I have never seen thee with mine eyes.
And when I lift them from the wondrous tale, See, all about me has so strange a show! Is that thy river running down the vale? Is that thy wind that through the pines doth blow?
Couldst thou right verily appear again, The same who walked the paths of Palestine, And here in England teach thy trusting men, In church and field and house, with word and sign?
Here are but lilies, sparrows, and the rest!– My hands on some dear proof would light and stay! But my heart sees John leaning on thy breast, And sends them forth to do what thou dost say.
“Extraordinary young man!” exclaimed Mrs. Ramshorn as they left the church, with a sigh that expressed despair. “Is he an infidel or a fanatic? a Jesuit or a Socinian?”
“If he would pay a little more attention to his composition,” said Bascombe indifferently, “he might in time make of himself a good speaker. I am not at all sure there are not the elements of an orator in him, if he would only reflect a little on the fine relations between speech and passion, and learn of the best models how to play upon the feelings of a congregation. I declare I don’t know, but he might make a great man of himself. As long as he don’t finish his sentences however, jumbles his figures, and begins and ends abruptly without either exordium or peroration, he needn’t look to make anything of a preacher–and that seems his object.”
“If that be his object, he had better join the Methodists at once. He would be a treasure to them,” said Mrs. Ramshorn.
“That is not his object, George. How can you say so?” remarked Helen quietly, but with some latent indignation.
George smiled a rather unpleasant smile and held his peace.
Little more was said on the way home. Helen went to take off her bonnet, but did not re-appear until she was called to their early Sunday dinner.
Now George had counted upon a turn in the garden with her before dinner, and was annoyed–more, it is true, because of the emotion which he rightly judged the cause of her not joining him, than the necessity laid on him of eating his dinner without having first unburdened his mind; but the latter fact also had its share in vexing him.
When she came into the drawing-room it was plain she had been weeping; but, although they were alone, and would probably have to wait yet a few minutes before their aunt joined them, he resolved in his good nature to be considerate, and say nothing till after dinner, lest he should spoil her appetite. When they rose from the table, she would have again escaped, but when George left his wine and followed her, she consented, at his urgent, almost expostulatory request, to walk once round the garden with him.
As soon as they were out of sight of the windows, he began–in the tone of one whose love it is that prompts rebuke.
“How COULD you, my dear Helen, have so little care of your health, already so much shaken with nursing your brother, as to yield your mind to the maundering of that silly ecclesiastic, and allow his false eloquence to untune your nerves! Remember your health is the first thing–positively the FIRST and foremost thing to be considered, both for your own sake and that of your friends. Without health, what is anything worth?”
Helen made no answer, but she thought with herself there were two or three things for the sake of which she would willingly part with a considerable portion of her health. Her cousin imagined her conscience-stricken, and resumed with yet greater confidence.
“If you MUST go to church, you ought to prepare yourself beforehand by firmly impressing on your mind the fact that the whole thing is but part of a system–part of a false system; that the preacher has been brought up to the trade of religion, that it is his business, and that he must lay himself out to persuade people–himself first of all if he can, but anyhow his congregation, of the truth of everything contained in that farrago of priestly absurdities– called the Bible, forsooth! as if there were no other book worthy to be mentioned beside it. Think for a moment how soon, were it not for their churches and prayers and music and their tomfoolery of preaching, the whole precious edifice would topple about their ears, and the livelihood, the means of contentment and influence, would be gone from so many restless paltering spirits! So what is left them but to play upon the hopes and fears and diseased consciences of men as they best can! The idiot! To tell a man when he is hipped to COME UNTO ME! Bah! Does the fool really expect any grown man or woman to believe in his or her brain that the man who spoke those words, if ever there was a man who spoke them, can at this moment anni domini”–George liked to be correct–“1870, hear whatever silly words the Rev. Mr. Wingfold, or any other human biped, may think proper to address to him with his face buried in his blankets by his bedside or in his surplice over the pulpit-bible?–not to mention that they would have you believe, or be damned to all eternity, that every thought vibrated in the convolutions of your brain is known to him as well as to yourself! The thing is really too absurd! Ha! ha! ha! The man died–the death of a malefactor, they say; and his body was stolen from his grave by his followers, that they might impose thousands of years of absurdity upon generations to come after them. And now, when a fellow feels miserable, he is to cry to that dead man, who said of himself that he was meek and lowly in heart, and straightway the poor beggar shall find rest to his soul! All I can say is that, if he find rest so, it will be the rest of an idiot! Believe me, Helen, a good Havannah and a bottle of claret would be considerably more to the purpose;–for ladies, perhaps rather a cup of tea and a little Beethoven!” Here he laughed, for the rush of his eloquence had swept away his bad humour. “But really,” he went on, “the whole is TOO absurd to talk about. To go whining after an old Jew fable in these days of progress! Why, what do you think is the last discovery about light?”
“You will allow this much in excuse for their being so misled,” returned Helen, with some bitterness, “that the old fable pretends at least to provide help for sore hearts; and except it be vivisection, I—-“
“Do be serious, Helen,” interrupted George. “I don’t object to joking, you know, but you are not joking in a right spirit. This matter has to do with the well-being of the race; and we MUST think of others, however your Jew-gospel, in the genuine spirit of the Hebrew of all time, would set everybody to the saving of his own wind-bubble of a soul. Believe me, to live for others is the true way to lose sight of our own fancied sorrows.”
Helen gave a deep sigh. Fancied sorrows!–Yes, gladly indeed would she live for ONE other at least! Nay more–she would die for him. But alas! what would that do for one whose very being was consumed with grief ineffable!–She must speak, else he would read her heart.
“There are real sorrows,” she said. “They are not all fancied.”
“There are very few sorrows,” returned George, “in which fancy does not bear a stronger proportion than even a woman of sense, while the fancy is upon her, will be prepared to admit. I can remember bursts of grief when I was a boy, in which it seemed impossible anything should ever console me; but in one minute all would be gone, and my heart, or my spleen, or my diaphragm, as merry as ever. Believe that all is well, and you will find all will be well–very tolerably well, that is, considering.”
“Considering that the well-being has to be divided and apportioned and accommodated to the various parts of such a huge whole, and that there is no God to look after the business!” said Helen, who, according to the state of the tide in the sea of her trouble, resented or accepted her cousin’s teaching.
Few women are willing to believe in death. Most of them love life, and are faithful to hope; and I much doubt whether, if Helen had but had a taste of trouble to rouse the woman within her before her cousin conceived the wish of making her a proselyte, she would have turned even a tolerably patient ear to his instructions. Yet it is strange to see how even noble women, with the divine gift of imagination, may be argued into unbelief in their best instincts by some small man, as common-place as clever, who beside them is as limestone to marble. The knowing craft comes creeping up into the shadow of the rich galleon, and lo, with all her bountiful sails gleaming in the sun, the ship of God glides off in the wake of the felucca to the sweltering hollows betwixt the winds!
“You perplex me, my dear cousin,” said Bascombe. “It is plain your nursing has been too much for you. You see everything with a jaundiced eye.”
“Thank you, Cousin George,” said Helen. “You are even more courteous than usual.”
She turned from him and went into the house. Bascombe walked to the bottom of the garden and lighted his cigar, confessing to himself that for once he could not understand Helen.–Was it then only that he was ignorant of the awful fact that lay burrowing in her heart, or was he not ignorant also of the nature of that heart in which such a fact must so burrow? Was there anything in his system to wipe off that burning, torturing red? “Such things must be: men who wrong society must suffer for the sake of that society.” But the red lay burning on the conscience of Helen too, and she had not murdered! And for him who had, he gave society never a thought, but shrieked aloud in his dreams, and moaned and wept when he waked over the memory of the woman who had wronged him, and whom he had, if Bascombe was right, swept out of being like an aphis from a rose-leaf.
A VANISHING GLIMMER.
Helen ran upstairs, dropped on her knees by her brother’s bedside, and fell into a fit of sobbing, which no tears came to relieve.
“Helen! Helen! if you give way I shall go mad,” said a voice of misery from the pillow.
She jumped up, wiping her dry eyes.
“What a wicked, selfish, bad sister, bad nurse, bad everything, I am, Poldie!” she said, her tone ascending the steps of vocal indignation as she spoke. “But shall I tell you”–here she looked all about the chamber and into the dressing-room ere she proceeded–“shall I tell you, Poldie, what it is that makes me so– I don’t know what?–It is all the fault of the sermon I heard this morning. It is the first sermon I ever really listened to in my life–certainly the first I ever thought about again after I was out of the church. Somehow or other of late Mr. Wingfold has been preaching so strangely! but this is the first time I have cared to listen. Do you know he preaches as if he actually believed the things he was saying, and not only that, but as if he expected to persuade you of them too! I USED to think all clergymen believed them, but I doubt it now more than ever, for Mr. Wingfold speaks so differently and looks so different. I never saw any clergyman look like that; and I never saw such a change on a man as there is on him. There must be something to account for it. Could it be that he has himself really gone to–as he says–and found rest–or something he hadn’t got before? But you won’t know what I mean unless I tell you first what he was preaching about. His text was: Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden;–a common enough text, you know? Poldie! but somehow it seemed fresh to him, and he made it look fresh to me, for I felt as if it hadn’t been intended for preaching about at all, but for going straight into people’s hearts its own self, without any sermon. I think the way he did it was this: he first made us feel the sort of person that said the words, and then made us feel that he did say them, and so made us want to see what they could really mean. But of course what made them so different to me, was”–here Helen did burst into tears, but she fought with her sobs, and went on–“was–was–that my heart is breaking for you, Poldie–for I shall never see you smile again, my darling!”
She buried her face on his pillow, and Leopold uttered “a great and exceeding bitter cry.” Her hand was on his mouth instantly, and her sobs ceased, while the tears kept flowing down her white face.
“Just think, Poldie,” she said, in a voice which she seemed to have borrowed in her need from some one else, “–just think a moment! What if there should be some help in the great wide universe–somewhere, for as wide as it is–a heart that feels for us both, as my heart feels for you, Poldie! Oh! oh! wouldn’t it be grand? Wouldn’t it be lovely to be at peace again, Poldie? If there should be somebody somewhere who could take this gnawing serpent from my heart!”–She pulled wildly at her dress.–“‘Come unto me,’ he said, ‘all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ That’s what he said:–oh! if it could be true!”
“Surely it is–for you, best of sisters,” cried Leopold; “but what has it to do with me? Nothing. She is DEAD–I killed her. Even if God were to raise her to life again, HE could not make it that I didn’t drive the knife into her heart! Give ME rest!–why there’s the hand that did it! O my God! my God!” cried the poor youth, and stared at his thin wasted hand, through which the light shone red, as at a conscious evil thing that had done the deed, and was still stained with its signs.
“God CAN’T be very angry with you, Poldie,” sobbed Helen, feeling about blindly in the dark forest of her thoughts for some herb of comfort, and offering any leaf upon which her hand fell first.
“Then he ain’t fit to be God!” cried Leopold fiercely. “I wouldn’t have a word to say to a God that didn’t cut a man in pieces for such a deed! Oh Helen, she was so lovely!–and what is she now?”
“Surely if there were a God, he would do something to set it right somehow! I know if I was God, Poldie, I should find some way of setting you up again, my darling. You ain’t half as bad as you make yourself out.”
“You had better tell that to the jury, Helen, and see how they will take it,” said Leopold contemptuously.
“The jury!” Helen almost screamed. “What do you mean, Poldie?”
“Well!” returned Leopold, in a tone of justification, but made no further answer to her question. “All God can do to set it right,” he resumed, after a pause, “is to damn me for ever and ever, as one of the blackest creatures in creation.”
“THAT I don’t believe, anyhow!” returned Helen with equal vehemence and indefiniteness.
And for the first time, George Bascombe’s teachings were a comfort to her. It was all nonsense about a God. As to her brother’s misery, it had no source but that to which Shakespeare attributed the misery of Macbeth–and who should know better than Shakespeare?–the fear, namely, of people doing the like to himself! But straightway thereupon–horrible thought!–she found herself–yes! it was in her–call it thought, or call it feeling, it was hers!–she found herself despising her poor crushed brother! disgusted with him! turning from him, not even in scorn of his weakness, but in anger at what he had brought upon her! It was but a flash of the lightning of hell: one glance of his great, troubled, appealing, yet hopeless eyes, vague with the fogs that steamed up from the Phlegethon within him, was enough to turn her anger at him into hate of herself who had stabbed his angel in her heart. Then in herself she knew that all murderers are not of Macbeth’s order, and that all remorse is not for oneself.
But where was the God to be found who could and MIGHT help in the wretched case? How were they to approach him? Or what could he do for them? Were such a being to assure Leopold that no hurt should come to him–even that he thought little of the wrong that he had done–would that make his crushed heart begin to swell again with fresh life? would that bring back Emmeline from the dark grave and the worms to the sunny earth and the speech of men? And whither, yet farther, he might have sent her, she dared not think. And Leopold was not merely at strife with himself, but condemned to dwell with a self that was loathsome to him. She no longer saw any glimmer of hope but such as lay in George’s doctrine of death. If there was no helper who could clean hearts and revive the light of life, then welcome gaunt death! let the grim-mouthed skeleton be crowned at every feast!
LET US PRAY!
That was the sole chink in the prison where these two sat immured alone from their kind–unless, indeed, the curate might know of another.
One thing Helen had ground for being certain of–that the curate would tell them no more than he knew. Even George Bascombe, who did not believe one thing he said, counted him an honest man! Might she venture to consult him, putting the case as of a person who had done very wrong–say stolen money or committed forgery or something? Might she not thus gather a little honey of comfort and bring it home to Leopold?
Thinking thus and thus she sat silent; and all the time the suffering eyes were fixed upon her face, looking for no comfort, but finding there all they ever had of rest.
“Are you thinking about the sermon, Helen?” he asked. “What was it you were telling me about it just now? Who preached it?”
“Mr. Wingfold,” she answered listlessly.
“Who is Mr. Wingfold?”
“Our curate at the Abbey.”
“What sort of man is he?”
“Oh, a man somewhere about thirty–a straightforward, ordinary kind of man.”
“Ah!” said Leopld–then added after a moment–“I was hoping he might be an old man, with a grey head, like the brahmin who used to teach me Sanscrit.–I wish I had treated him better, poor old fellow! and learned a little more.”
“What does it matter about Sanscrit? Why should you make troubles of trifles?” said Helen, whose trials had at last begun to undermine her temper.
“It was not of the Sanscrit, but the moonshee I was thinking,” answered Leopold mildly.
“You darling!” cried Helen, already repentant. But with the revulsion she felt that this state of things could not long continue–she must either lose her senses, or turn into something hateful to herself: the strain was more than she could bear. She MUST speak to somebody, and she would try whether she could not approach the subject with Mr. Wingfold.
But how was she to see him? It would be awkward to call upon him at his lodgings, and she must see him absolutely alone to dare a whisper of what was on her mind.
As she thus reflected, the thought of what people would say, were it remarked that she contrived to meet the curate, brought a shadow of scorn upon her face. Leopold saw the expression, and, sensitive as an ailing woman, said,
“Helen, what HAVE I done to make you look like that?”
“How did I look, my Poldie?” she asked, turning on him eyes like brimming wells of love and tenderness.
“Let me see,” answered Leopold; and after a moment’s thought replied, “As Milton’s Satan might have looked if Mammon had counselled him to make off with the crown-jewels instead of declaring war.”
“Ah, Poldie!” cried Helen, delighted at the stray glance of sunshine, and kissing him as she spoke, “you must really be better! I’ll tell you what!” she exclaimed joyfully, as a new thought struck her: “As soon as you are able, we will set out for New York–to pay Uncle Tom a visit of course! but we shall never be seen or heard of again. At New York we will change our names, cross to San Francisco, and from there sail for the Sandwich Islands. Perhaps we may be able to find a little one to buy, just big enough for us two; and you shall marry a nice native—-“
Her forced gaiety gave way. She burst out weeping afresh, and throwing her arms round him, sobbed–
“Poldie, Poldie! you can pray: cry to God to help us somehow or other; and if there be no God to hear us, then let us die together. There are easy ways of it, Poldie.”
“Thank you! thank you, sister dear!” he answered, pressing her to his bosom: “that is the first word of real comfort you have spoken to me. I shall not be afraid if you go with me.”
It was indeed a comfort to both of them to remember that there was this alternative equally to the gallows and a long life of gnawing fear and remorse. But it was only to be a last refuge of course. Helen withdrew to the dressing-room, laid herself on her bed, and began to compass how to meet and circumvent the curate, so as by an innocent cunning to wile from him on false pretences what spiritual balm she might so gain for the torn heart and conscience of her brother. There was no doubt it would be genuine, and the best to be had, seeing George Bascombe, who was honesty itself, judged the curate an honest man. But how was it to be done? She could see only one way. With some inconsistency, she resolved to cast herself on his generosity, and yet would not trust him entirely.
She did not go downstairs again, but had her tea with her brother. In the evening her aunt went out to visit some of her pensioners, for it was one of Mrs. Ramshorn’s clerical duties to be kind to the poor–a good deal at their expense, I am afraid–and presently George came to the door of the sick-room to beg her to go down and sing to him. Of course, in the house of a dean’s relict, no music except sacred must be heard on a Sunday; but to have Helen sing it, George would condescend even to a hymn tune; and there was Handel, for whom he professed a great admiration! What mattered his subjects? He could but compose the sort of thing the court wanted of him, and in order to that, had to fuddle his brains first, poor fellow! So said George at least.
That Leopold might not hear them talking outside his door, a thing which no invalid likes, Helen went downstairs with her cousin; but although she had often sung from Handel for his pleasure, content to reproduce the bare sounds, and caring nothing about the feelings both they and the words represented, she positively refused this evening to gratify him. She must go back to Leopold. She would sing from The Creation if he liked, but nothing out of The Messiah would she or could she sing.
Perhaps she could herself hardly have told why, but George perceived the lingering influence of the morning’s sermon, and more vexed than he had ever yet been with her, for he could not endure her to cherish the least prejudice in favour of what he despised, he said he would overtake his aunt, and left the house. The moment he was gone, she went to the piano, and began to sing, “Comfort ye.” When she came to “Come unto me,” she broke down. But with sudden resolution she rose, and, having opened every door between it and her brother, raised the top of the piano, and then sang, “Come unto me,” as she had never sung in her life. Nor did she stop there. At the distance of six of the wide-standing houses, her aunt and cousin heard her singing “Thou didst not leave,” with the tone and expression of a prophetess–of a Maenad, George said. She was still singing when he opened the door, but when they reached the drawing-room she was gone. She was kneeling beside her brother.
The next morning, as Wingfold ate his breakfast by an open window looking across the churchyard, he received a letter by the local post. It was as follows:–
“Dear Mr. Wingfold, I am about to take an unheard-of liberty, but my reasons are such as make me bold. The day may come when I shall be able to tell you them all. Meantime I hope you can help me. I want very much to ask your counsel upon a certain matter, and I cannot beg you to call, for my aunt knows nothing of it. Could you contrive a suitable way of meeting? You may imagine my necessity is grievous when I thus expose myself to the possible bitterness of my own after judgment. But I must have confidence in the man who spoke as you did yesterday morning. I am, dear Mr. Wingfold, sincerely yours, Helen Lingard.
“P.S.–I shall be walking along Pine Street from our end, at eleven o’clock to-morrow.”
The curate was not taken with a great surprise. But something like fear overshadowed him at finding his sermons come back upon him thus. Was he, an unbelieving labourer, to go reaping with his blunt and broken sickle where the corn was ripest! But he had no time to think about that now. It was nearly ten o’clock, and she would be looking for her answer at eleven. He had not to think long, however, before he saw what seemed a suitable plan to suggest; whereupon he wrote as follows:
“Dear Miss Lingard, I need not say that I am entirely at your service. But I am doubtful if the only way that occurs to me will commend itself to you. I know what I am about to propose is safe, but you may not have sufficient confidence in my judgment to accept it as such.
“Doubtless you have seen the two deformed persons, an uncle and niece, named Polwarth, who keep the gate of Osterfield Park. I know them well, and, strange as it may seem, I must tell you, in order that you may partake of my confidence, that whatever change you may have observed in my public work is owing to the influence of those two, who have more faith in God than I have ever met with before. It may not be amiss to mention also that, although poor and distorted, they are of gentle blood as well as noble nature. With this preamble, I venture to propose that you should meet me at their cottage. To them it would not appear at all strange that one of my congregation should wish to see me alone, and I know you may trust their discretion. But while I write thus, with all confidence in you and in them, I must tell you that I have none in myself. I feel both ashamed and perplexed that you should imagine any help in me. Of all I know, I am the poorest creature to give counsel. All I can say for myself is that I think I see a glimmer of light, and light is light, through whatever cranny, and into whatever poverty-stricken chamber, it may fall. Whatever I see I will say. If I can see nothing to help you, I will be silent. And yet I may be able to direct you where to find what I cannot give you. If you accept my plan, and will appoint day and hour, I shall acquaint the Polwarths with the service we desire of them. Should you object to it, I shall try to think of another. I am, dear Miss Lingard, yours very truly, Thomas Wingfold.”
He placed the letter between the pages of a pamphlet, took his hat and stick, and was walking down Pine Street as the Abbey clock struck eleven. Midway he met Helen, shook hands with her, and, after an indifferent word or two, gave her the pamphlet, and bade her good morning.
Helen hurried home. It had required all her self-command to look him in the face, and her heart beat almost painfully as she opened the letter.
She could not but be pleased–even more than pleased with it. If the secret had been her own, she thought she could have trusted him entirely; but she must not expose poor Leopold.
By the next post the curate received a grateful answer, appointing the time, and expressing perfect readiness to trust those whom he had tried.
She was received at the cottage door by Rachel, who asked her to walk into the garden, where Mr. Wingfold was expecting her. The curate led her to a seat overgrown with honeysuckle.
ADVICE IN THE DARK.
It was some moments before either of them spoke, and it did not help Wingfold that she sat clouded by a dark-coloured veil. At length he said,
“You must not fear to trust me because I doubt my ability to help you. I can at least assure you of my sympathy. The trouble I have myself had enables me to promise you that.”
“Can you tell me,” she said, from behind more veils than that of lace, “how to get rid of a haunting idea?”
“That depends on the nature of the idea, I should imagine,” answered the curate. “Such things sometimes arise merely from the state of the health, and there the doctor is the best help.”
Helen shook her head, and smiled behind her veil a grievous smile. The curate paused, but, receiving no assistance, ventured on again.
“If it be a thought of something past and gone, for which nothing can be done, I think activity in one’s daily work must be the best aid to endurance.”
“Oh dear! oh dear!” sighed Helen–“when one has no heart to endure, and hates the very sunlight!–You wouldn’t talk about work to a man dying of hunger, would you?”
“I’m not sure about that.”
“He wouldn’t heed you.”
“What would you do then?”
“Give him some food, and try him again, I think.”
“Then give me some food–some hope, I mean, and try me again. Without that, I don’t care about duty or life or anything.”
“Tell me, then, what is the matter; I MAY be able to hint at some hope,” said Wingfold, very gently. “Do you call yourself a Christian?”
The question would to most people have sounded strange, abrupt, inquisitorial; but to Helen it sounded not one of them all.
“No,” she answered.
“Ah!” said the curate a little sadly, and went on. “Because then I could have said, you know where to go for comfort.–Might it not be well however to try if there is any to be had from him that said ‘COME UNTO ME, AND I WILL GIVE YOU REST?'”
“I can do nothing with that. I have tried and tried to pray, but it is of no use. There is such a weight on my heart that no power of mine can lift it up. I suppose it is because I cannot believe there is anyone hearing a word I say. Yesterday, when I got alone in the park, I prayed aloud: I thought that perhaps, even if he might not be able to read what was in my heart, he might be able to hear my voice. I was even foolish enough to wish I knew Greek, because perhaps he would understand me better if I were to pray in Greek. My brain seems turning. It is of no use! There is no help anywhere!”
She tried hard, but could not prevent a sob. And then came a burst of tears.
“Will you not tell me something about it?” said the curate, yet more gently. Oh, how gladly would he relieve her heart if he might! “Perhaps Jesus has begun to give you help, though you do not know it yet,” he said, “His help may be on the way to you, or even with you, only you do not recognize it for what it is. I have known that kind of thing. Tell me some fact or some feeling I can lay hold of. Possibly there is something you ought to do and are not doing, and that is why you cannot rest. I think Jesus would give no rest except in the way of learning of him.”
Helen’s sobs ceased, but what appeared to the curate a long silence followed. At length she said, with faltering voice:
“Suppose it were a great wrong that had been done, and that was the unendurable thought? SUPPOSE, I say, that was what made me miserable!”
“Then you must of course make all possible reparation,” answered Wingfold at once.
“But if none were possible–what then?”
Here the answer was not so plain, and the curate had to think.
“At least,” he said at length, “you could confess the wrong, and ask forgiveness.”
“But if that also were impossible,” said Helen, shuddering inwardly to find how near she drew to the edge of the awful fact.
Again the curate took time to reply.
“I am endeavouring to answer your questions as well as I can,” he said; “but it is hard to deal with generalities. You see how useless, for that very reason, my answers have as yet been! Still I have something more to say, and hesitate only because it may imply more confidence than I dare profess, and of all things I dread untruth. But I am honest in this much at least, that I desire with true heart to find a God who will acknowledge me as his creature and make me his child, and if there be any God I am nearly certain he will do so; for surely there cannot be any other kind of God than the Father of Jesus Christ! In the strength of this much of conscious truth I venture to say–that no crime can be committed against a creature without being committed also against the creator of that creature; therefore surely the first step for anyone who has committed such a crime must be to humble himself before God, confess the sin, and ask forgiveness and cleansing. If there is anything in religion at all it must rest upon an actual individual communication between God and the creature he has made; and if God heard the man’s prayer and forgave him, then the man would certainly know it in his heart and be consoled–perhaps by the gift of humility.”
“Then you think confession to God is all that is required?”
“If there be no one else wronged to whom confession can be made. If the case were mine–and sometimes I much fear that in taking holy orders I have grievously sinned–I should then do just as I have done with regard to that–cry to the living power which I think originated me, to set the matter right for me.”
“But if it could not be set right?”
“Then to forgive and console me.”
“Alas! alas! that he will not hear of. He would rather be punished than consoled. I fear for his brain. But indeed that might be well.”
She had gone much farther than she had intended; but the more doubtful help became, the more she was driven by the agony of a perishing hope to search the heart of Wingfold.
Again the curate pondered.
“Are you sure,” he said at length, “that the person of whom you speak is not neglecting something he ought to do–something he knows perhaps?”
He had come back to the same with which he started.
Through her veil he saw her turn deadly white. Ever since Leopold said the word JURY, a ghastly fear had haunted Helen. She pressed her hand on her heart and made no answer.
“I speak from experience,” the curate went on–“from what else could I speak? I know that so long as we hang back from doing what conscience urges, there is no peace for us. I will not say our prayers are not heard, for Mr. Polwarth has taught me that the most precious answer prayer can have, lies in the growing strength of the impulse towards the dreaded duty, and in the ever sharper stings of the conscience. I think I asked already whether there were no relatives to whom reparation could be made?”
“Yes, yes,” gasped Helen;” and I told you reparation was impossible.”
Her voice had sunk almost to a groan.
“But at least confession–” said Wingfold—and started from his seat.
A stifled cry had interrupted him. Helen was pressing her handkerchief to her mouth. She rose and ran from him. Wingfold stood alarmed and irresolute. She had not gone many steps, however, when her pace slackened, her knees gave way, and she dropped senseless on the grass. Wingfold ran to the house for water. Rachel hastened to her assistance, and Polwarth followed. It was some time before they succeeded in reviving her.
When at length the colour began to return a little to her cheek, Polwarth dropped on his knees at her feet. Wingfold in his ministrations was already kneeling on one side of her, and Rachel now kneeled on the other. Then Polwarth said, in his low and husky, yet not altogether unmelodious voice,
“Life eternal, this lady of thine hath a sore heart and we cannot help her. Thou art Help, O mighty Love. They who know thee best rejoice in thee most. As thy sun that shines over our heads, as thy air that flows into our bodies, thou art above, around, and in us; thou art in her heart: Oh speak to her there; let her know thy will, and give her strength to do it, O Father of Jesus Christ! Amen.”
When Helen opened her eyes, she saw only the dark leaves of an arbutus over her, and knew nothing beyond a sense of utter misery and weakness, with an impulse to rise and run. With an effort she moved her head a little, and then she saw the three kneeling forms, the clergyman with bowed head, and the two dwarfs with shining upturned faces: she thought she was dead and they were kneeling about her corpse. Her head dropped with a weary sigh of relief, she lay passive, and heard the dwarf’s prayer. Then she knew that she was not dead, and the disappointment was bitter. But she thought of Leopold, and was consoled. After a few minutes of quiet, they helped her into the house, and laid her on a sofa in the parlour.
“Don’t be frightened, dear lady,” said the little woman; “nobody shall come near you. We will watch you as if you were the queen. I am going to get some tea for you.”
But the moment she left the room, Helen got up. She could not endure a moment longer in the place. There was a demon at her brother’s ear, whispering to him to confess, to rid himself of his torture by the aid of the law: she must rush home and drive him away. She took her hat in her hand, opened the door softly, and ere Rachel could say a word, had flitted through the kitchen, and was amongst the trees on the opposite side of the road. Rachel ran to the garden to her uncle and Wingfold. They looked at each other for a moment in silence.
“I will follow her,” said Wingfold. “She may faint again. If she does I shall whistle.”
He followed, and kept her in sight until she was safe in her aunt’s garden.
“What IS to be done?” he said, returning in great trouble. “I do not think I made any blunder, but there she is gone in tenfold misery! I wish I could tell you what passed, but that of course I cannot.”
“Of course not,” returned Polwarth. “But the fact of her leaving yon so is no sign that you said the wrong thing,–rather the contrary. When people seek advice, it is too often in the hope of finding the adviser side with their second familiar self, instead of their awful first self, of which they know so little. Do not be anxious. You have done your best. Wait for what will come next.”
Helen tottered to a little summer-house in the garden, which had been her best retreat since she had given her room to her brother, and there seated herself to regain breath and composure ere she went to him. She had sought the door of Paradise, and the door of hell had been opened to her! If the frightful idea which, she did not doubt, had already suggested itself to Leopold, should now be encouraged, there was nothing but black madness before her! Her Poldie on the scaffold! God in heaven! Infinitely rather would she poison herself and him! Then she remembered how pleased and consoled he had been when she said something about their dying together, and that reassured her a little: no, she was certain Leopold would never yield himself to public shame! But she must take care that foolish, extravagant curate should not come near him. There was no knowing to what he might persuade him! Poor Poldie was so easily led by any show of nobility–anything that looked grand or self-sacrificing!
Helen’s only knowledge of guilt came from the pale image of it lifted above her horizon by the refraction of her sympathy. She did not know, perhaps never would understand the ghastly horror of conscious guilt, besides which there is no evil else. Agonies of injury a man may endure, and, so far from being overwhelmed, rise above them tenfold a man, who, were he to awake to the self-knowledge of a crime, would sink into a heap of ruin. Then indeed, if there be no God, or one that has not an infinite power of setting right that which has gone wrong with his work, then indeed welcome the faith, for faith it may then be called, of such as say there is no hereafter! Helen did not know to what gulfs of personal shame, nay, to what summits of public execration, a man may be glad to flee for refuge from the fangs of home-born guilt–if so be there is any refuge to be found in either. And some kind of refuge there does seem to be. Strange it is and true that in publicity itself lies some relief from the gnawing of the worm–as if even a cursing humanity were a barrier of protection between the torn soul and its crime. It flees to its kind for shelter from itself. Hence, I imagine, in part, may the coolness of some criminals be accounted for. Their quietness is the relief brought by confession–even confession but to their fellows. Is it that the crime seems then lifted a little from their shoulders, and its weight shared by the ace?
Helen had hoped that the man who had spoken in public so tenderly, and at the same time so powerfully, of the saving heart of the universe, that would have no divisions of pride, no scatterings of hate, but of many would make one, would in private have spoken yet sweeter words of hope and consolation, which she might have carried home in gladness to her sick-souled brother, to comfort and strengthen him–words of might to allay the burning of the poison within him, and make him feel that after all there was yet a place for him in the universe, and that he was no outcast of Gehenna. But instead of such words of gentle might, like those of the man of whom he was so fond of talking, he had only spoken drearily of duty, hinting at a horror that would plunge the whole ancient family into a hell of dishonour and contempt! It did indeed show what mere heartless windbags of effete theology those priests were! Skeletons they were, and no human beings at all!–Her father!–the thought of him was distraction! Her mother! Oh, if Leopold had had her mother for his too, instead of the dark-skinned woman with the flashing eyes, he would never have brought this upon them! It was all his mother’s fault–the fault of her race–and of the horrible drug her people had taught him to take! And was he to go and confess it, and be tried for it, and be–? Great God!–And here was the priest actually counselling what was worse than any suicide!
Suddenly, however, it occurred to her that the curate had had no knowledge of the facts of the case, and had therefore been compelled to talk at random. It was impossible he should suspect the crime of which her brother had been guilty, and therefore could not know the frightful consequences of such a confession as he had counselled. Had she not better then tell him all, and so gather from him some right and reasonable advice for the soothing of the agonies of her poor broken-winged angel? But alas! what security had she that a man capable of such priestly sevei’ity and heartlessness–her terrors made her thus inconsequent–would not himself betray the all but innocent sufferer to the vengeance of justice so called? No; she would venture no farther. Sooner would she go to George Bascombe–from whom she not only could look for no spiritual comfort, but whose theories were so cruel against culprits of all sorts! Alas, alas! she was alone! absolutely alone in the great waste, death-eyed universe!–But for a man to talk so of the tenderness of Jesus Christ, and then serve her as the curate had done–it was indeed shameless! HE would never have treated a poor wretched woman like that!–And as she said thus to herself, again the words sounded in the ear of her heart: ‘COME UNTO ME, ALL YE THAT LABOUR AND ARE HEAVY LADEN, AND I WILL GIVE YOU REST.’ Whence came the voice? From her memory, or from that inner chamber of the spirit which the one spirit-bearing spirit keeps for his own in every house that he builds–alas so long in most human houses shut away from the rest of the rooms and forgotten, or recollected with uneasiness as a lumber-closet in which lie too many things that had better not be looked into? But what matter where the voice that had said them, so long as the words were true, and she might believe them!–Whatever is true CAN be believed of the true heart.
Ere she knew, Helen was on her knees, with her head on the chair, yet once more crying to the hearer of cries–possible or impossible being she knew not in the least, but words reported of him had given birth to the cry–to help her in her dire need.
Instead of any word, or thought even, coming to her that might be fancied an answer, she was scared from her knees by an approaching step—that of the house-keeper come to look for her with the message from her aunt that Leopold was more restless than usual, not at all like himself, and she could do nothing with him.
A HAUNTED SOUL.
Helen rose and hastened to her brother, with a heart of lead in her body.
She started when she saw him: some change had passed on him since the morning! Was that eager look in his eyes a fresh access of the fever? That glimmer on his countenance, doubtful as the first of the morning, when the traveller knows not whether the light be in the sky or only in his brain, did look more like a dawn of his old healthful radiance than any fresh fire of madness; but at the same time he appeared more wasted and pinched and death-like than she had yet seen him. Or was it only in her eyes–was she but reading in his face the agony she had herself gone through that day?
“Helen, Helen!” he cried as she entered the room, “come here, close to me.”
She hastened to him, sat down on the bedside, took his hand, and looked as cheerfully as she could, yet it was but the more woefully, in his face.
“Helen!” he said again, and he spoke with a strange expression in his voice, for it seemed that of hope, “I have been thinking all day of what you told me on Sunday.”
“What was that, Poldie?” asked Helen with a pang of fear.
“Why, those words of course–what else? You sang them to me afterwards, you know. Helen, I should like to see Mr. Wingfold. Don’t you think he might be able to do something?”
“What sort of thing, Poldie?” she faltered, growing sick at heart.–Was this what came of praying! she thought bitterly.
“Something or other–I don’t know what exactly,” returned Leopold.–“Oh Helen!” he broke out with a cry, stifled by the caution that had grown habitual to both of them, “is there no help of any kind anywhere? Surely Mr. Wingfold could tell me something–comfort me somehow, if I were to tell him all about it! I could trust the man that said such things as those you told me. That I could!–Oh! I wish I hadn’t run away, but had let them take me and hang me!”
Helen felt herself grow white. She turned away, and pretended to search for something she had dropped.
“I don’t think he would be of the slightest use to you,” she said, still stooping.
And she felt like a devil dragging the soul of her brother to hell. But that was a foolish fancy, and must be resisted!
“Not if I told him everything?” Leopold hissed from between his teeth in the struggle to keep down a shriek.
“No, not if you told him everything,” she answered, and felt like a judge condemning him to death.
“What is he there for then?” said Leopold indignantly, and turned his face to the wall and moaned.
Helen had not yet thought of asking herself whether her love to her brother was all clear love, and nowise mingled with selfishness– whether in the fresh horror that day poured into the cup that had seemed already running over, it was of her brother only she thought, or whether threatened shame to herself had not a part in her misery. But, as far as she was aware, she was quite honest in saying that the curate could not comfort him–for what attempt even had he made to comfort her? What had he done but utter common-places and truisms about duty? And who could tell but–indeed was she not certain that such a man, bringing the artillery of his fanaticism to bear upon her poor boy’s wild enthusiastic temperament, would speedily persuade him to make a reality of that terrible thing he had already thought of, that hideously impossible possibility which she dared not even allow to present itself before her imagination? So he lay and moaned, and she sat crushed and speechless with despairing misery.
All at once Leopold sat straight up, his eyes fixed and flaming, his face white: he looked like a corpse possessed by a spirit of fear and horror. Helen’s heart swelled into her throat, the muscles of her face contracted with irresistible rigor, and she felt it grow exactly like his, while with wide eyes she stared at him, and he stared at something which lest she also should see, she dared not turn her head. Surely, she thought afterwards, she must have been that moment in the presence of something unearthly! Her physical being was wrenched from her control, and she must simply sit and wait until the power or influence, whichever it might be, should pass away. How long it was ere it relaxed its hold she could not tell; it could not have been long, she thought. Suddenly the light sank from Leopold’s eyes, his muscles relaxed, he fell back motionless, apparently senseless, on the pillow, and she thought he was dead. The same moment she was free; the horror had departed from her own atmosphere too, and she made haste to restore him. But in all she did for him, she felt like the executioner who gives restoratives to the wretch that has fainted on the rack or the wheel. What right had SHE, she thought, to multiply to him his moments of torture? If the cruel power that had created him for such misery, whoever, whatever, wherever he might be, chose thus to torture him, was she, his only friend, out of the selfish affection he had planted in her, to lend herself his tool? Yet she hesitated not a single moment in her ministrations.
There is so much passes in us of which our consciousness takes no grasp,–or but with such a flitting touch as scarcely to hand it over to the memory–that I feel encouraged to doubt whether ever there was a man absolutely without hope. That there have been, alas, are many, who are aware of no ground of hope, nay even who feel no glimmer in them of anything they can call hope, I know; but I think in them all is an underlying unconscious hope. I think that not one in all the world has more than a shadowy notion of what hopelessness means. Perhaps utter hopelessness is the outer darkness.
At length Leopold opened his eyes, gave a terrified glance around, held out his arms to her, and drew her down upon his face.
“I saw her!” he said, in a voice that sounded as if it came from the grave, and she heard it in her heart.
“Nonsense, dear Poldie! it was all fancy–nothing more,” she returned, in a voice almost as hollow as his; and the lightness of the words uttered in such a tone jarred dismayfully on her own ear.
“Fancy!” he repeated; “I know what fancy is as well as any man or woman born: THAT was no fancy. She stood there, by the wardrobe–in the same dress!–her face as white as her dress! And–listen!–I will tell YOU–I will soon satisfy you it COULD be no fancy.”–Here he pushed her from him and looked straight in her eyes.–“I saw her back reflected in the mirror of the wardrobe-door, and”–here the fixed look of horror threatened to return upon his face, but he went on–“listen,–there was a worm crawling on it, over her lovely white shoulder! Ugh! I saw it in the mirror!”
His voice had risen to a strangled shriek, his face was distorted, and he shook like a child on the point of yelling aloud in an agony of fear. Helen clasped his face between her hands, and gathering courage from despair, if indeed that be a possible source of courage, and it is not gathered rather from the hidden hope of which I speak, and the love that will cleave and not forsake, she set her teeth, and said:
“Let her come then, Poldie! I am with you, and I defy her! She shall know that a sister’s love is stronger than the hate of a jilt–even if you did kill her. Before God, Poldie, I would after all rather be you than she. Say what you will, she had herself to blame, and I don’t doubt did twenty worse things than you did when you killed her.”
But Leopold seemed not to hear a word she said, and lay with his face to the wall.
At length he turned his head suddenly, and said,
“Helen, if you don’t let me see Mr. Wingfold, I shall go mad, and then everything will come out.”
Helen flew to the dressing-room to hide her dismay, and there cast herself on the bed. The gray Fate above, or the awful Demo-gorgon beneath, would have its way! Whether it was a living Will or but the shadow of the events it seemed to order, it was too much for her. She had no choice but yield. She rose and returned to her brother.
“I am going to find Mr. Wingfold,” she said in a hoarse voice, as she took her hat.
“Don’t be long then, Helen,” returned Leopold. “I can’t bear you out of my sight. And don’t let aunt come into the room. SHE might come again, you know, and then all would be out.–Bring him with you, Helen.”
“I will,” answered Helen, and went.
The curate might have returned: she would seek him first at his lodging. She cared nothing about appearances now.
It was a dull afternoon. Clouds had gathered, and the wind was chilly. It seemed to blow out of the church, which stood up cold and gray against the sky, filling the end of the street. What a wretched, horrible world it was! She approached the church, and entered the churchyard from which it rose like a rock from the Dead Sea–a type of the true church, around whose walls lie the dead bodies of the old selves left behind by those who enter. Helen would have envied the dead, who lay so still under its waves; but, alas! if Leopold was right, they but roamed elsewhere in their trouble, and were no better for dying.
She hurried across, and reached the house; but Mr. Wingfold had not yet returned, and she hurried back across it again, to tell Leopold that she must go farther to find him.
The poor youth was already more composed. What will not the vaguest hope sometimes do for a man! Helen told him she had seen the curate in the park, when she was out in the morning, and he might be there still, or she might meet him coming back. Leopold only begged her to make haste. She took the road to the lodge.
She did not meet him, and it was with intense repugnance that she approached the gate.
“Is Mr. Wingfold here?” she asked of Rachel, as if she had never spoken to her before; and Rachel, turning paler at the sight of her, answered that he was in the garden with her uncle, and went to call him.
The moment he appeared she said, in a tone rendered by conflicting emotions inexplicable, and sounding almost rude,
“Will you come to my brother? He is very ill, and wants to see you.”
“Certainly,” returned Wingfold; “I will go with you at once.”
But in his heart he trembled at the thought of being looked to for consolation and counsel, and that apparently in a case of no ordinary kind. Most likely he would not know what to say, or how to behave himself! How different it would be if with all his heart he believed the grand lovely things recorded in the book of his profession! Then indeed he might enter the chambers of pain and fear and guilt with the innocent confidence of a winged angel of comfort and healing! But now the eyes of his understanding were blinded with the IFS and BUTS that flew swarming like black muscae wherever they turned. Still he would–nay, he must go and do his best.
They walked across the park to reach the house by the garden, and for some distance they walked in silence. At length Helen said:
“You must not encourage my brother to talk much, if you please; and you must not mind what he says; he has had brain-fever, and sometimes talks strangely. But on the other hand, if he fancy you don’t believe him, it will drive him wild–so you must take care– please.”
Her voice was like that of a soul trying to speak with unproved lips.
“Miss Lingard,” said Wingfold, slowly and quietly–and if his voice trembled, he only was aware of it, “I cannot see your face, therefore you must pardon me if I ask you–are you quite honest with me?”
Helen’s first feeling was anger. She held her peace for a time. Then she said,
“So, Mr. Wingfold!–that is the way you help the helpless!”
“How can any man help without knowing what has to be helped?” returned the curate. “The very being of his help depends upon his knowing the truth. It is very plain you do not trust me, and equally impossible I should be of any service as long as the case is such.”
Again Helen held her peace. Resentment and dislike towards himself combined with terror of his anticipated counsel to render her speechless.
Her silence lasted so long that Wingfold came to the resolution of making a venture that had occurred to him more than once that morning. Had he not been convinced that a soul was in dire misery, he would not have had recourse to the seeming cruelty.
“Would this help to satisfy you that, whatever my advice may be worth, at least my discretion may be trusted?” he said.
They were at the moment passing through a little thicket in the park, where nobody could see them, and as he spoke, he took the knife-sheath from his pocket, and held it out to her.
She started like a young horse at something dead: she had never seen it, but the shape had an association. She paled, retreated a step, with a drawing back of her head and neck and a spreading of her nostrils, stared for a moment, first at the sheath, then at the curate, gave a little moan, bit her under lip hard, held out her hand, but as if she were afraid to touch the thing, and said:
“What is it? Where did you find it?”
She would have taken it, but Wingfold held it fast.
“Give it me,” she said imperatively. “It is mine. I lost it.”
“There is something dark on the lining of it,” said the curate, and looked straight into her eyes.
She let go her hold. But almost the same moment she snatched the sheath out of his hand and held it to her bosom, while her look of terror changed into one of defiance. Wingfold made no attempt to recover it. She put it in her pocket, and drew herself up.
“What do you mean?” she said, in a voice that was hard yet trembled.
She felt like one that sees the vultures gathering above him, and lifts a moveable finger in defence. Then with sudden haughtiness both of gesture and word:
“You have been acting the spy, sir!”
“No,” returned the curate quietly. “The sheath was committed to my care by one whom certain facts that had come to his knowledge– certain words he had overheard–“
He paused. She shook visibly, but still would hold what ground might yet be left her.
“Why did you not give it me before?” she asked.
“In the public street, or in your aunt’s presence?”
“You are cruel!” she panted. Her strength was going. “What do you know?”
“Nothing so well as that I want to serve you, and you may trust me.”
“What do you mean to do?”
“My best to help you and your brother.”
“But to what end?”
“To any end that is right.”
“But how? What would you tell him to do?”
“You must help me to discover what he ought to do.”
“Not–” she cried, clasping her hands and dropping on her knees before him, “–you WILL not tell him to give himself up? Promise me you will not, and I will tell you everything. He shall do anything you please but that! Anything but that!”
Wingfold’s heart was sore at sight of her agony. He would have raised her with soothing words of sympathy and assurance, but still she cried, “Promise me you will not make him give himself up.”
“I dare not promise anything.” he said. “I MUST do what I may see to be right. Believe me, I have no wish to force myself into your confidence, but you have let me see that you are in great trouble and in need of help, and I should be unfaithful to my calling if I did not do my best to make you trust me.”
A pause followed. Helen rose despairingly, and they resumed their walk. Just as they reached the door in the fence which would let them out upon the meadow in sight of the Manor-house, she turned to him and said,
“I will trust you, Mr. Wingfold. I mean, I will take you to my brother, and he shall do as he thinks proper.”
They passed out and walked across the meadow in silence. In the passage under the fence, as she turned from closing the door behind them, she stood and pressed her hand to her side.
“Oh! Mr. Wingfold,” she cried, “my heart will break! He has no one but me! No one but me to be mother and sister and all to him! He is NOT wicked–my poor darling!”
She caught the curate by the arm with a grasp which left its mark behind it, and gazed appealingly into his face: in the dim tomb-like light, her wide-strained eyes, white agonized countenance, and trembling roseless lips made her look like one called back from death “to speak of horrors.”
“Save him from madness,” she said, in forced and unnatural utterance. “Save him from the remorse gnawing at his heart. But do not, DO not counsel him to give himself up.”
“Would it not be better you should tell me about it,” said the curate, “and save him the pain and excitement?”
“I will do so, if he wishes it, not otherwise. Come; we must not stay longer. He can hardly bear me out of his sight. I will leave you for one moment in the library, and then come to you. If you should see my aunt, not a word of all this, please. All she knows is that he has had brain-fever, and is recovering only very slowly. I have never given her even a hint of anything worse. Indeed, honestly, Mr. Wingfold, I am not at all certain he did do what he will tell you. But there is his misery all the same. Do have pity on us, and don’t be hard upon the poor boy. He is but a boy–only twenty.”
“May God be to me as I am to him!” said Wingfold solemnly.
Helen withdrew her entreating eyes, and let go his arm. They went up into the garden and into the house.
Afterwards, Wingfold was astonished at his own calmness and decision in taking upon him–almost, as it were, dragging to him–this relation with Helen and her brother. But he had felt that not to do so would be to abandon Helen to her grief, and that for her sake he must not hesitate to encounter whatever might have to be encountered in doing so.
Helen left him in the library, as she had said, and there he waited her return in a kind of stupor, unable to think, and feeling as if he were lost in a strange and anxious dream.
“Come,” said Helen, re-entering, and the curate rose and followed her.
The moment he turned the corner of the bed and saw the face on the pillow, he knew in his soul that Helen was right, and that that was no wicked youth who lay before him–one, however, who might well have been passion-driven. There was the dark complexion and the great soft yet wild eyes that came of tropical blood. Had not Helen so plainly spoken of her brother, however, he would have thought he saw before him a woman. The worn, troubled, appealing light that overflowed rather than shone from his eyes, went straight to the curate’s heart.
Wingfold had had a brother, the only being in the world he had ever loved tenderly; he had died young, and a thin film of ice had since gathered over the well of his affections; but now suddenly this ice broke and vanished, and his heart yearned over the suffering youth. He had himself been crying to God, not seldom in sore trouble, and now, ere, as it seemed, he had himself been heard, here was a sad brother crying to him for help. Nor was this all; the reading of the gospel story had roused in his heart a strange yet most natural longing after the face of that man of whom he read such lovely things, and thence, unknown to himself, had come a reverence and a love for his kind, which now first sprang awake to his consciousness in the feeling that drew him towards Leopold.
Softly he approached the bed, his face full of tenderness and strong pity. The lad, weak with protracted illness and mental torture, gave one look in his face, and stretched out both his arms to him. How could the curate give him but a hand? He put his arms round him as if he had been a child.
“I knew you would come,” sobbed Lingard.
“What else should I do but come?” returned Wingfold.
“I have seen you somewhere before,” said Lingard–“in one of my dreams, I suppose.”
Then, sinking his voice to a whisper, he added:
“Do you know you came in close behind HER? She looked round and saw you, and vanished!”
Wingfold did not even try to guess at his meaning.
“Hush, my dear fellow!” he said; “I must not let you talk wildly, or the doctor might forbid my seeing you.”
“I am not talking a bit wildly,” returned Leopold. “I am as quiet as a mountain-top. Ah! when I AM wild–if you saw me then, you might say so!”
Wingfold sat down on the side of the bed, and took the thin, hot hand next him in his own firm, cool one.
“Come now,” he said, “tell me all about it. Or shall your sister tell me?–Come here, please, Miss Lingard.”
“No, no!” cried Leopold hastily; “I will tell you myself. My poor sister could not bear to tell it you. It would kill her.–But how am I to know you will not get up and walk out the moment you have a glimpse of what is coming?”
“I would as soon leave a child burning in the fire, and go out and shut the door,” said Wingfold.
“You can go now, Helen,” said Lingard very quietly. “Why should you be tortured over again? You needn’t mind leaving me. Mr. Wingfold will take care of me.”
Helen left the room, with one anxious look at her brother as she went.
Without a moment’s further delay, Leopold began, and in wonderfully direct and unbroken narrative, told the sad evil tale as he had formerly told it to his sister, only more consecutively and quietly. Possibly his anxiety as to how the listener would receive it, served, by dividing him between two emotions, to keep the reuttered tale from overpowering him with freshened vividness. All the time, he kept watching Wingfold’s face, the expressions of which the curate felt those eyes were reading like a book.
He was so well prepared, however, that no expression of surprise, no reflex of its ghastfulness met Leopold’s gaze, and he went on to the end without a pause even. When he had finished, both sat silent, looking in each other’s eyes, Wingfold’s beaming with compassion, and Lingard’s glimmering with doubtful, anxious inquiry and appeal. At length Wingfold said:
“And what do you think I can do for you?”
“I don’t know. I thought you could tell me something. I cannot live like this! If I had but thought before I did it, and killed myself instead of her! It would have done so much better! Of course I should be in hell now, but that would be all right, and this is all wrong. I have no right to be lying here and Emmeline in her grave. I know I deserve to be miserable for ever and ever, and I don’t want not to be miserable–that is all right–but there is something in this wretchedness that I cannot bear. Tell me something to make me able to endure my misery. That is what you can do for me. I don’t want to go mad. And what is worst of all, I have made my sister miserable, and I can’t bear to see it. She is wasting away with it. And besides I fancy she loves George Bascombe–and who would marry the sister of a murderer? And now she has begun to come to me again–in the daytime–I mean Emmeline!–or I have begun to see her again–I don’t know which;–perhaps she is always there, only I don’t always see her–and it don’t much matter which. Only if other people were to see her!–While she is there nothing could persuade me I do not see her, but afterwards I am not so sure that I did. And at night I keep dreaming the horrible thing over and over again; and the agony is to think I shall never get rid of it, and never never feel clean again. To be for ever and ever a murderer and people not know it, is more than I CAN bear.”
THE CURATE’S COUNSEL.
Not seeing yet what he had to say, but knowing that scintillation the smallest is light, the curate let the talk take its natural course, and said the next thing that came to him.
“How do you feel when you think that you may yet be found out?” he asked.
“At first I was more afraid of that than of anything else. Then after that danger seemed past, I was afraid of the life to come. That fear left me next, and now it is the thing itself that is always haunting me. I often wish they would come and take me, and deliver me from myself. It would be a comfort to have it all known, and never need to start again. I think I could even bear to see her in the prison. If it would annihilate the deed, or bring Emmeline back, I cannot tell you how gladly I would be hanged. I would, indeed, Mr. Wingfold. I I hope you will believe me, though I don’t deserve it.”
“I do believe you,” said the curate, and a silence followed.
“There is but one thing I can say with confidence at this moment,” he resumed: “it is, that I am your friend, and will stand by you. But the first part of friendship sometimes is to confess poverty, and I want to tell you that, of the very things concerning which I ought to know most, I knew least. I have but lately begun to feel after God, and I dare not say that I have found him, but I think I know now where to find him. And I do think, if we could find him, then we should find help. All I can do for you now is only to be near you, and talk to you, and pray to God for you, that so together we may wait for what light may come.–Does anything ever look to you as if it would make you feel better?”
“I have no right to feel better or take comfort from anything.”
“I am not sure about that.–Do you feel any better for having me come to see you?”
“Oh, yes, indeed I do!”
“Well, there is no wrong in that, is there?”
“I don’t know. It seems a sneaking kind of thing: she has got none of it. My sister makes excuses for me, but the moment I begin to listen to them I only feel the more horrid.”
“I have said nothing of that kind to you.”
“And yet you like to have me here?”
“Yes, indeed, sir,” he answered, earnestly.
“And it does not make you think less of your crime?”
“No. It makes me feel it worse than ever to see you sitting there, a clean, strong, innocent man, and think what I might have been.”
“Then the comfort you get from me does you no harm, at least. If I were to find my company made you think with less hatred of your crime, I should go away that instant.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Leopold humbly. “Oh, sir!” he resumed after a little silence, “–to think that never more to all eternity shall I be able to think of myself as I used to think!”
“Perhaps you used to think too much of yourself,” returned the curate. “For the greatest fool and rascal in creation there is yet a worse condition, and that is–not to know it, but think himself a respectable man. As the event proves, though you would doubtless have laughed at the idea, you were then capable of committing a murder. I have come to see–at least I think I have–that except a man has God dwelling in him, he may be, or may become, capable of any crime within the compass of human nature.”
“I don’t know anything about God,” said Leopold. “I daresay I thought I did before this happened–before I did it, I mean,” he added in correction,”–but I know now that I don’t, and never did.”
“Ah, Leopold!” said the curate, “think, if my coming to you comforts you, what would it be to have him who made you always with you!”
“Where would be the good? I daresay he might forgive me, if I were to do this and that, but where would be the good of it? It would not take the thing off me one bit.”
“Ah! now,” said Wingfold, “I fear you are thinking a little about your own disgrace and not only of the bad you have done. Why should you not be ashamed? Why would you have the shame taken off you? Nay; you must humbly consent to bear it. Perhaps your shame is the hand of love washing the defilement from off you. Let us keep our shame, and be made clean from the filth!”
“I don’t know that I understand you, sir. What do you mean by the defilement? Is it not to have done the deed that is the defilement?”
“Is it not rather to have that in you, a part, or all but a part of your being, that makes you capable of doing it? If you had resisted and conquered, you would have been clean from it; and now, if you repent and God comes to you, you will yet be clean. Again I say, let us keep our shame and be made clean! Shame is not defilement, though a mean pride persuades men so. On the contrary, the man who is honestly ashamed has begun to be clean.”
“But what good would that do to Emmeline? It cannot bring her up again to the bright world out of the dark grave.”
“Emmeline is not in the dark grave.”
“Where is she, then?” he said with a ghastly look.
“That I cannot tell. I only know that, if there be a God, she is in his hands,” replied the curate.
The youth gazed on in his face and made no answer. Wingfold saw that he had been wrong in trying to comfort him with the thought of God dwelling in him. How was such a poor passionate creature to take that for a comfort? How was he to understand or prize the idea, who had his spiritual nature so all undeveloped? He would try another way.
“Shall I tell you what seems to me sometimes the only one thing I want to help me out of my difficulties?”
“Yes, please, sir,” answered Leopold, as humbly as a child.
“I think sometimes, if I could but see Jesus for one moment–“
“Ah!” cried Leopold, and gave a great sigh.
‘YOU would like to see him then, would you?”
“Oh, Mr. Wingfold!”
“What would you say to him if you saw him?”
“I don’t know. I would fall down on my face and hold his feet lest he should go away from me.”
“Do you think then he could help you?”
“Yes. He could make Emmeline alive again. He could destroy what I have done.”
“But still, as you say, the crime would remain.”
“But, as you say, he could pardon that, and make me that I would never never sin again.”
“So you think the story about Jesus Christ is true?”
“Yes. Don’t you?” said Leopold with an amazed, half-frightened look.
“Yes, indeed I do.–Then do you remember what he said to his disciples as he left them: ‘I AM WITH YOU ALWAYS UNTO THE END OF THE WORLD’?–If that be true, then he can hear you just as well now as ever he could. And when he was in the world, he said, ‘COME UNTO ME ALL YE THAT LABOUR AND ARE HEAVY-LADEN, AND I WILL GIVE YOU REST.’ It is rest you want, my poor boy–not deliverance from danger or shame, but rest–such peace of mind as you had when you were a child. If he cannot give you that, I know not where or how it is to be had. Do not waste time in asking yourself how he can do it: that is for him to understand, not you–until it is done. Ask him to forgive you and make you clean and set things right for you. If he will not do it, then he is not the saviour of men, and was wrongly named Jesus.”
The curate rose. Leopold had hid his face. When he looked again he was gone.
As Wingfold came out of the room, which was near the stair, Helen rose from the top of it, where she had been sitting all the time he had been with her brother. He closed the door gently behind him, and stepped softly along the landing. A human soul in guilt and agony is an awful presence, but there was more than that in the hush of the curate: he felt as if he had left the physician of souls behind him at the bedside; that a human being lay on the rack of the truth, but at his head stood one who watched his throes with the throbs of such a human heart as never beat in any bosom but his own, and the executioners were angels of light. No wonder if with such a feeling in his breast Wingfold walked softly, and his face glistened! He was not aware that the tears stood in his eyes, but Helen saw them.
“You know all!” she faltered.
“I do. Will you let me out by the garden again? I wish to be alone.”
She led the way down the stair, and walked with him through the garden. Wingfold did not speak.
“You don’t think very badly of my poor brother, do you, Mr. Wingfold?” said Helen, meekly.
“It is a terrible fate,” he returned. “I think I never saw a lovelier disposition. I do hope his mind will soon be more composed. I think he knows where alone he can find rest. I am well aware how foolish that of which I speak seems to some minds, Miss Lingard; but when a man is once overwhelmed in his own deeds, when they have turned into spectres to mock at him, when he loathes himself and turns with sickness from past, present, and future, I know but one choice left, and that is between the death your friend Mr. Bascombe preaches, and the life preached by Jesus, the crucified Jew. Into the life I hope your brother will enter.”
“I am so glad you don’t hate him.”
“Hate him! Who but a demon could hate him?”
Helen lifted a grateful look from eyes that swam in tears. The terror of his possible counsel for the moment vanished. He could never tell him to give himself up!
“But, as I told you, I am a poor scholar in these high matters,” resumed the curate, “and I want to bring Mr. Polwarth to see him.”
“The dwarf!” exclaimed Helen, shuddering at the remembrance of what she had gone through at the cottage.
“Yes. That man’s soul is as grand and beautiful and patient as his body is insignificant and distorted and troubled. He is the wisest and best man I have ever known.
“I must ask Leopold,” returned Helen, who, the better the man was represented, felt the more jealous and fearful of the advice he might give. Her love and her conscience were not yet at one with each other.
They parted at the door from the garden, and she returned to the sick-room.
She paused, hesitating to enter. All was still as the grave. She turned the handle softly and peeped in: could it be that Wingfold’s bearing had communicated to her mind a shadow of the awe with which he had left the place where perhaps a soul was being born again? Leopold did not move. Terror laid hold of her heart. She stepped quickly in, and round the screen to the side of the bed. There, to her glad surprise, he lay fast asleep, with the tears not yet dried upon his face. Her heart swelled with some sense unknown before: was it rudimentary thankfulness to the Father of her spirit?
As she stood gazing with the look of a mother over her sick child, he lifted his eyelids, and smiled a sad smile.
“When did you come into the room?” he said.
“A minute ago,” she answered.
“I did not hear you,” he returned.
“No, you were asleep.”
“Not I! Mr. Wingfold is only just gone.”
“I have let him out on the meadow since.”
Leopold stared, looked half alarmed, and then said,
“Did God make me sleep, Helen?”
She did not answer. The light of a new hope in his eye, as if the dawn had begun at last to break over the dark mountains, was already reflected from her heart.
“Oh! Helen,” he said, “that IS a good fellow, SUCH a good fellow!”
A pang of jealousy, the first she had ever felt, shot to her heart: she had hitherto, since his trouble, been all in all to her Leopold! Had the curate been a man she liked, she would not perhaps have minded it so much.
“You will be able to do without me now,” she said sadly. “I never could understand taking to people at first sight!”
“Some people are made so, I suppose, Helen. I know I took to you at first sight! I shall never forget the first time I saw you–when I came to this country a lonely little foreigner,–and you, a great beautiful lady, for such you seemed to me, though you have told me since you were only a great gawky girl–I know that could never have been–you ran to meet me, and took me in your arms, and kissed me. I was as if I had crossed the sea of death and found paradise in your bosom! I am not likely to forget you for Mr. Wingfold, good and kind and strong as he is! Even SHE could not make me forget you, Helen. But neither you nor I can do without Mr. Wingfold any more, I fancy. I wish you liked him better!–but you will in time. You see he’s not one to pay young ladies compliments, as I have heard some parsons do; and he may be a little–no, not unpolished, not that–that’s not what I mean–but unornamental in his manners! Only, you see,–“
“Only, you see, Poldie,” interrupted Helen, with a smile, a rare thing between them, “you know all about him, though you never saw him before.”
“That is true,” returned Leopold; “but then he came to me with his door open, and let me walk in. It doesn’t take long to know a man then. He hasn’t got a secret like us, Helen,” he added, sadly.
“What did he say to you?”
“Much what he said to you from the pulpit the other day, I should think.”
Then she was right! For all his hardness and want of sympathy, the curate had yet had regard to her entreaties, and was not going to put any horrid notions about duty and self-sacrifice into the poor boy’s head!
“He’s coming again to-morrow,” added Leopold, almost gleefully, “and then perhaps he will tell me more, and help me on a bit!”
“Did he tell you he wants to bring a friend with him?”
“I can’t see the good of taking more people into our confidence.”
“Why should he not do what he thinks best, Helen? You don’t interfere with the doctor–why should you with him? When a man is going to the bottom as fast as he can, and another comes diving after him–it isn’t for me to say how he is to take hold of me. No, Helen; when I trust, I trust out and out.”
Helen sighed, thinking how ill that had worked with Emmeline.
Ever since George Bascombe had talked about the Polwarths that day they met him in the park, she had felt a sort of physical horror of them, as if they were some kind of unclean creature that ought not to be in existence at all. But when Leopold uttered himself thus, she felt that the current of events had seized her, and that she could only submit to be carried along.
The next day the curate called again on Leopold. But Helen happened to be otherwise engaged for a few minutes, and Mrs. Ramshorn to be in the sick-room when the servant brought his name. With her jealousy of Wingfold’s teaching, she would not have admitted him, but Lingard made such loud protest when he heard her say “Not at home,” insisting on seeing him, that she had to give way, and tell the maid to show him up. She HAD NO NOTION however of leaving him alone in the room with the invalid: who could tell what absurd and extravagant ideas he might not put into the boy’s head! He might make him turn monk, or Socinian, or latter-day-saint, for what she knew! So she sat, blocking up the sole small window in the youth’s dark dwelling that looked eastward, and damming back the tide of the dawn from his diseased and tormented soul. Little conversation was therefore possible. Still the face of his new friend was a comfort to Leopold, and ere he left him they had managed to fix an hour for next day, when they would not be thus foiled of their talk.
That same afternoon, Wingfold took the draper to see Polwarth.
Rachel was lying on the sofa in the parlour–a poor little heap, looking more like a grave disturbed by efforts at a resurrection, than a form informed with humanity. But she was cheerful and cordial, receiving Mr. Drew and accepted his sympathy most kindly.
“We’ll see what God will do for me,” she said in answer to a word from the curate. Her whole bearing, now as always, was that of one who perfectly trusted a supreme spirit under whose influences lay even the rugged material of her deformed dwelling.
Polwarth allowed Wingfold to help him in getting tea, and the conversation, as will be the case where all are in earnest, quickly found the right channel.
It is not often in real life that such conversations occur. Generally, in any talk worth calling conversation, every man has some point to maintain, and his object is to justify his own thesis and disprove his neighbour’s. I will allow that he may primarily have adopted his thesis because of some sign of truth in it, but his mode of supporting it is generally such as to block up every cranny in his soul at which more truth might enter. In the present case, unusual as it is for so many as three truth-loving men to come thus together on the face of this planet, here were three simply set on uttering truth they had seen, and gaining sight of truth as yet veiled from them.
I shall attempt only a general impression of the result of their evening’s intercourse, partly recording the utterances of Polwarth.
“I have been trying hard to follow you, Mr. Polwarth,” said the draper, after his host had for a while had the talk to himself, “but I cannot get a hold of your remarks. One moment I think I have got the end of the clew, and the next find myself all abroad again. Would you tell me what you mean by divine service, for I think you must use the phrase in some different sense from what I have been accustomed to?”
“Ah! I ought to remember,” said Polwarth, “that what has grown familiar to my mind from much solitary thinking, may not at once show itself to another, when presented in the forms of a foreign individuality. I ought to have premised that, when I use the phrase, DIVINE SERVICE, I mean nothing whatever belonging to the church, or its observances. I mean by it what it ought to mean–the serving of God–the doing of something for God. Shall I make of the church in my foolish imaginations a temple of idolatrous worship by supposing that it is for the sake of supplying some need that God