Chapter LIV

TWO weeks after the friends went to London, Mrs. Farningham's delicate boy had an attack of hemorrhage. This kept her indoors very much, and altered their plans. It was arranged that she and Stella should leave for Alexandria as soon as the boy was well enough to travel. They were staying in the Westham Hotel, close to Grosvenor Square. One morning, a week before they purposed leaving, Stella went to make some purchases for herself and Mrs. Farningham. Not once after the evening on which she announced her intention of going to the East had Stella wavered in her decision. She had improved rapidly in health and

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spirits. The dark shadow that had for a time hovered over her had disappeared. At times something of feverish restlessness took possession of her. But there was no relapse into moody melancholy or apathy. The steady, unimpaired health, which naturally belonged to her, was once more re-established.

Though it was past the middle of May, the morning was dark and lowering. But Stella was oblivious of all external influences. Ritchie had been anxious to hire a brougham for her daily use; but she prevented his doing so. She said she saw so much more when she was on foot, and all her old love of walking had returned. She had an abounding sense of vigorous life that made physical exertion a necessity. A few paces away from the hotel she met Langdale on his way there.

‘Will you please take Dustiefoot back?’ she said, her face glowing, her eyes softly lustrous as in the old days. ‘When I am looking at things he puts his paws on the counter, and insists on looking too.’

‘May I walk a little way with you?’ he asked as she gave him her hand. ‘I am going into the country for a few days this afternoon.’

‘I think Amalie is waiting for you,’ she answered. ‘Her boy has had rather a restless night again.’

Then he took Dustiefoot back as she wished. No plans nor designs had been formed between them. They met casually now and then, and talked a little of merely impersonal matters; nothing more. But each was conscious that the one step which was to shape their future was taken when Stella decided to go to the East.

In those days she struggled no longer against the rising joy that used to well up in her heart at the prospect of cutting herself finally adrift from the future that had been woven for her by treachery and deceit. The sweet fascination of life had come back to her with redoubled force. On this morning, as she went on her way, she recalled the existence she had led for the past few months with horror— with something of wondering contempt. She had been terrified at the past, oblivious of the present, quailing at the days to come, till she had been on the very brink of madness. And all the time the world was full of interest and movement and joy.

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Was there no lurking consciousness of the possibility of remorse swallowing up this intoxicating recaptured happiness? If so, she spurned the thought—cast it aside like one of those malformed little insects that sometimes crawl on the petals of blood-red roses. She was glad that a kind of pagan recklessness, of indifference to far-off consequences, mingled with the tide of her courage and reviving happiness. Once for all she had decided that the problem of her life must be looked at as it was in itself—must be solved apart from authority and tradition. She had been too long cowering like a slave, afraid of others—afraid of herself— afraid most of all of Nature, which in its subtle way had all the time cherished and nursed back into being the one love of her life, compared to which all other bonds were but as flax touched with flame. The chalice of life's most precious benediction was once more at her lips.

She recalled something that Langdale had once said of the stimulating aura of London—the indefinable demand on one's best powers to polish the rude rocks of capacity into blocks fit for building. But apart from any subtle appeal to the mind, there was a kind of implied union, in the silent fellowship of being successfully alive, which she shared with the crowd around. To be young and well clad, and walk upright with well-moulded limbs, with eyes undimmed with fears, with a capacity for happiness, was a form of responsive loyalty to the life that surged around. Everything appeared to her so unworn and fresh, she was alive in every faculty, and stirred as with the tender novelty in which objects present themselves to us in early childhood. Fancy, imagination, and memory, all were buoyant as young birds that had newly learned to cleave the air.

The feeling now and then was uppermost that she had in some way gone back to an earlier stage of experience—that some indefinable weight had slipped off her. It was as though Nature had taken her by the hand and led her back smilingly from the sophistry of long-accumulated tradition —led her back to the primal instincts of life, blotting out the officious ‘thou shalt’ and ‘shalt not’ of defunct generations as impertinent intermeddling with a joy all her own. Perhaps there are forces slumbering in the mind which waken into activity but for one brief hour of the years which are given to us here. It may be that on this morning,

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if never again, Stella was subtly influenced by the bare, untrammelled aspects of her native land—by the vast unpeopled spaces which hold no claim from the past, and lay no ghostly charges on human beings to postpone their lives for the sake of those who have been and those who are to come. And yet it was vagrant recollections of one of the wildernesses of her country that first quelled the glad ardour of her mood. In the midst of her content at being among crowds of unknown men and women, she recalled how often people spoke of the solitude of a strange city being more absolute than that of a desert. Instantaneously she saw before her an austere stretch of Mallee Scrub. What moody melancholy the reality would evoke—what troops of questions! … Questions of what? A quick, inexplicable pang shot through her mind—a dread like that which comes in a dream of the night, when one who has long ago passed beyond reach and recall stands in the masking appearance of life, and the sleeper shrinks from the blank of awakening. But it was a momentary feeling.

She made her purchases, and then passed out of Oxford Street by way of Audley Street, purposely taking a circuitous route to the Westham Hotel. She wanted to walk alone— to give herself up to the full sway of this swift, strong return of mental and physical well-being. But like the refrain of a song which once heard long ago comes back to haunt us one day, we know not why, the thought of the great Mallee desert kept rising up before her: the days she had wandered there—the books she had read—the thoughts that had come to her of the people who had fled from the world and lived in desolate places for the salvation of their soul. What strange delusions men had put upon themselves from age to age, sacrificing the only life they were sure of to vague chimeras of unknown modes of existence! Then her mother's grave, sweet voice came to her, and she suddenly found the tears rising in her eyes. She wiped them half angrily.

‘I must write and tell mother all—all!’ she thought.

But the resolve did not quiet the throng of thoughts which began to rise. ‘My beloved child, how I long to see you once more! Give me fuller details of your daily life. Why do you say so little of Edward? He wrote with such faithful regularity when you were ill; but since your

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recovery he writes no longer.’ These and other extracts from the home letters, from her mother's especially, rose before her. Nay, it seemed as though one strode beside her to read them to her whether she would or no. She went over the past few months again in self-vindication, as if she were pleading her case before an unseen tribunal.

‘See,’ she seemed to say, as if addressing a judge, ‘how hopelessly all my future would have been wrecked if Anselm had not saved me from myself. It was not one misfortune that overwhelmed me. Had it been only that vile plot of an unscrupulous woman—cheating me out of the one great happiness of life—I would have somehow borne the misery, perhaps overcome it. At least the union would be binding. That I am sure of. But there was a worse betrayal—the moral failure of the man who married me, concealing his subjection to drink. Yes, one may overcome this for a time, but there is always the possibility of a relapse. A year of probation—of what value is that when in one hour all the forces of habit may resume full sway?’

It seemed as though her invisible audience looked at her with stern, searching eyes. The very air became heavy with doubt and suspicion.

‘We have made no plans,’ she went on, unconsciously entering on the defence that implies accusation. ‘We have in common the power of sympathy with wide aims—with impersonal endeavours. We are capable of a great disinterested friendship that time and intimacy can only render more perfect. …’

What a strange power of the mind this is—in the hour of keenest elation to become conscious of a cloud of unseen witnesses who are satisfied with no version of our motives short of absolute veracity. After all that she could urge, Stella was in the end shaken, dissatisfied, restless. ‘It is part of the morbid phase through which I have been passing,’ she thought. And she mechanically hurried on, as if to escape her self-appointed tribunal, her explanations, the doubts that were incipient fears.

She had followed Audley Street much further than she intended, and now struck out of it eastward, going into a narrow street where, in the distance, she saw one or two cabs. She had got tired, and wished to drive back to the Westham. Before she reached them she was startled by a

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sudden downpour of rain. At the same moment she found herself opposite the open porch of a church, into which she went for shelter. There were some women who had evidently come out. Two of them were talking together.

‘Which cardinal?’ said one.

‘Why, Cardinal Newman,’ answered the other.

The name reached Stella, awakening many slumbering memories—awakening, too, that deep chord of reverent affection which the soul never loses for those who have at one time illuminated and guided it, even though we may have lost the light, though we may have strayed far from the pastures in which still waters flow.

‘Is the Cardinal here?’ she asked eagerly.

‘Yes—the service is almost over,’ answered the woman she addressed; ‘but if you go in, and go up near the altar, you can see him very well,’ she added kindly.

Acting on the impulse of the moment, Stella went in. But even as she entered some curious intuition crossed her mind—a misgiving, rather, that this simple action might break the purpose round which her happiness, her late triumphant sense of restored well-being, had centred. She passed noiselessly up the left aisle and took a seat not far from the high altar, where she was partly concealed by a pillar.

Yes, the service was almost over; but she saw him clearly—the man whose words so many years ago, in her careless, untroubled girlhood, had so deeply stirred the depths of her inner life; whose voice had been as a voice from heaven to guide her into close communion with God. But the voice had died into silence, and all the glow of dawning intercourse with a kingdom not of this world— all the glad fervour of faith—had left her. And often it had seemed good to her that she had been so early emancipated from the dogmatic finalities, the uncertain certainties, full of contradictions, that men are asked to receive as revelations of the Divine Will. But now that the first spring of youth was barely over, how hard and cruel life had become! and what was the bourne to which she had turned?

Alas! had she so soon again fallen into the clutches of Care and Fear—those haggard visitants, never far off when the conscience is not at peace, but soothed with anodynes? From the moment that she knelt within the church, all that

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had blinded her was swept ruthlessly away. It was like the letting in of waters, whose rising tide obliterates the paltry landmarks hastily thrown up by invading scouts who had no legal claim to the country. She heard nothing—saw nothing but that pale, spiritual presence; the high, noble brow—the austere, ascetic countenance, furrowed with years and sorrows—a face keenly symbolical of a life consecrated to the service of God and man.

She saw his hands joined and held up in benediction— saw him turn to the people and make the sign of the cross on them; and she bent her head in bitter weeping, like a reed shaken by a great storm. As smoke vanisheth away and is seen no more, so was she forsaken of the happiness —the passionate elation—that had so lately thrilled her through and through with an exalted sense of vitality.

Low and lower yet her head was bent, while she was rent with piercing sorrow, and the tears drenched her face like rain. The last note of the organ died away, the last footfalls of the congregation retreated, and she was alone in the house of prayer—alone with the still, small voice at whose sound our dearest travesties of righteousness shrivel into filthy rags. She had wandered so long and so far, and near her was the image of the crucified One—whom she had betrayed like Peter of old. ‘And the Lord turned and looked upon Peter. … And Peter went out and wept bitterly.’

All the unsatisfied yearning for belief, which had so long been stilled and left a waste place in her heart, rose into new life. And with this the anguish of a penitent convicted of innumerable treasons pierced her like a sword.

There are experiences of the soul that cannot be fathomed. They are beyond the reach of any plummet that is within our grasp—being part of the inscrutable mystery of the union of matter and spirit. There are moments in which the bruised, shaken, sorrowful human creature sees as by lightning-flashes the wild devious ways by which the spirit is lured away from the only possession that is everlasting! In the revulsion of feeling that overwhelmed her, Stella could for a time frame neither words nor purpose. But from the first she knew that she dared not follow the path which so short a time before had been to her as the only one that led into the citadel of life and hope. Gradually the

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first bitterness and tumult ebbed away. Some lines that she had once read to her father came back to her:

‘But as I raved, and grew more fierce and wild,
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Child!
And I replied, My Lord!’

Yes, out of the abysses of exceeding darkness which first fell on her when she knew that the only purpose which seemed to make life possible must be abandoned, there gradually emerged a faint dawn of hope. After all her weary wanderings—after her blindness and hardness of heart—after her long conviction that God could only be darkly groped after, never securely hoped in—she knew once more that the chastisement of our peace was upon Him.

‘And I replied, My Lord!’

She whispered the words through her blinding tears, and even her great unhappiness was an earnest to her that, notwithstanding her desertion and denial, and callous forgetfulness and unbelief, she had not been cast off utterly.

More and more piercingly she realized how her own pride and vanity and impatience of suffering had been at the root of the evil that had overtaken her. A scorching sense of shame at her infidelity to the higher loyalties of justice, self-sacrifice, and generosity overcame her. Waves of cutting remorse swept over her as she reviewed her conduct in her relationship with her husband. How indifferent and hard she had been all these months—shirking all companionship with him, never seeking to win him to any interest or pursuit beyond the narrow groove in which his life had always run! She was, perhaps, a little unfair to herself as she reviewed her conduct in this respect, as we are apt to be in our self-condemnations as well as in our self-enthusiasms—both in reality being often grounded on ignorance. There are periods in people's lives when everything is against them—when the currents that might have floated them into a quiet haven conspire only to dash them against the rocks. But yet the truth was clear—that on the first evidence of the power of evil habit over her husband she had stood coldly aloof, as if wrong-doing on his part absolved her from all lot or concern in his fate. She recalled how, in speaking of him she

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had even inferred that he could not help himself—assuming that the spirit of man, no more than his body, can have any source of impulse or action apart from the inexorable links of material causes. Could the spirit of evil itself help to wreck men with a darker atheism than this? … ‘He had so keen an appreciation of what was good in people—quick to perceive how men's failings and vices are often a forced rather than a wilful product. Always he expected them to live down the evil—to hold to and cultivate the better side of their nature.’

Where had she read or heard the words? Was not this, indeed, the very core of moral influence? And then came back to her the words of one of the Fathers to one who had tried to take his life: ‘Thy crime has made thee mine. See that henceforth thou walkest worthily of me and of God, to whom thou belongest.’ The belief that evil may be overcome—this spring of moral hopefulness—how basely she had denied it by word and action! What had become of the early Church when so much of its endeavours lay among those enslaved, and the descendants of those enslaved by the darkest forms of sensuality, if the half-understood dicta of pseudo-science regarding heredity, and the insignificance of man's will, had prevailed rather than the Divine rule, ‘Believe, and thou shalt be saved’? Oh, how cruelly she had failed in that care for the better nature of the man to whom she had promised her whole life! how completely she had fallen away from that lofty devotion to duty which is the truest, clearest note of womanhood!

And looking steadily into the depths of her unacknowledged thoughts, into the dark recesses of her mind, she convicted herself of having relied on Ritchie's inability to overcome his besetting sin—of having rested on this as a justification of her own future actions.

When the soul is penetrated with a deep sense of guilt, and is prostrated in utter humiliation, no thought overcomes it with such bleeding penitence as this—that it has failed another in the day of need. … She was consumed with shame and sorrow, and yet she was quickened by the thought that here her downward course had been arrested by the presence of that priest of the Most High whose words had so early fastened on her heart. Once more she had been drawn as with irresistible cords to the foot of the Cross.