previous
next



  ― 456 ―

Chapter LV

AFTER Stella had fought down the first amazed opposition to her changed plans, a sort of wonder came over her that she should thus throw aside all that seemed like the substance of living for an impalpable shadow—nay, for dark possibilities that began to lower more darkly at her the more she strove to face the future with deliberate calmness. But she did not falter in her purpose, and gradually the powers which man in all ages has found in work and prayer came to her aid. After she had seen Langdale and bidden him farewell, the worst was over. He returned to London three days before Mrs. Farningham sailed. When Stella saw him in his sister's sitting-room, he had already learned of the change of plans.

‘You must come with me, Anselm, now that Mrs. Ritchie has decided to remain. She seems to lose her interest in things mysteriously. She does nothing now but visit rookeries at the East-End. I mean, you must sail in the same boat with me.’

Presently Stella came in.

‘You are not so well again,’ he said quickly, noticing at once the entire change in her aspect since he had last seen her.

‘Oh, I am only a little tired,’ she answered, but her face had grown still paler. An old friend of her mother's called, and Mrs. Farningham went with her into the nursery.

‘Amalie tells me you are not going with her to the East,’ Langdale said when they were alone.

‘No—and I wanted to tell you personally, and to say farewell.’

‘Farewell?’ he repeated. He walked hastily to one of the windows; then he came back, and stood by the mantel piece a little way from where she sat. ‘Stella, do not be afraid,’ he said, in an agitated voice. ‘I shall never say a word, nor urge a claim to your attention, beyond what you judge would be right. You have been so much better; but even in this short time you have lost ground.’

‘In my weakness, my selfishness, my forgetfulness of duty, you have been so good to me. You must let me say


  ― 457 ―
this before we part,’ she said hurriedly, and as if she had not heard what he said.

‘So good to you?’ he echoed, as if the words hurt him, and then he checked himself. ‘Stella, do not try your nature beyond what it can bear. Go with my sister as you purposed doing. I will not see you, nor even write to you. Gain complete strength of mind and body, and then decide what you ought to do. Stella, you may trust me. And if you do not go to the East, let me write to Madonna. It is not fit that you should be left so much alone; you are not as strong as you think. I have written a long letter to Hector, which I delayed sending till you were well enough to read it.’

‘We must not send it. We have so far overlived our sorrow without paining others. … And now the worst is over.’

There was a little break in her voice as she said the last words. She was outwardly calm, but the anguish at her heart made the words seem unreal even to herself. Langdale looked at her fixedly, and was about to speak, but he checked himself, and again leant against the mantelpiece, shading his eyes with one hand. There was a long pause, and then Stella spoke again:

‘Do not fear for me, Anselm. Hitherto I have been thinking chiefly of myself—blaming others for the unhappiness that has overtaken us; brooding over mistakes instead of seeking to set them right. I will no longer think of myself—it is a melancholy subject.’

Her smile was sad, but her face had in it more of the old alertness, the being alive to the curiously unadjusted qualities and defects of life, than she had shown since their first painful meeting in the Old World.

Then she told him what had led to her sudden change of plans. As she did so, something of her old vigour and ardour of expression came back. But in all mental conflicts there are so many forces at work which we but dimly apprehend. We can but say that we have been defeated, or gained a victory, which leaves us more humiliated, more mistrustful of our hearts than ever before. The process we cannot fully explain to ourselves, much less to others.

‘You feel just now,’ he said slowly, when she had ceased speaking, ‘that you should sacrifice all your individuality,


  ― 458 ―
all your life, in reparation for a fancied wrong. But can you endure the punishment? Do you realize the peril——’

‘No; not punishment!’ she said, eagerly interrupting him. ‘It is punishment when we are allowed to follow our own devices; when we are dead to endeavour, to patience, to hope—hope, the beautiful spirit that leads us on, white and serene and gentle as the angel of the dew, and bids us never despair of overcoming our own follies, of helping others to better effort and aspiration. I have been so long the unresisting victim of despair; but once more God has called me. Do not pity me, Anselm! Be sorry for me only in the time when I was insensible to duty—deafened with the noise of the chain of mortality so that I could hear none of the voices by which God calls us. Oh! it is true; He does call us, and when we hear Him the poison is drawn out of our darkest sorrows. Dear friend, how can I explain myself? To-day all the sharpest pangs that I have suffered, all that I must endure, seem to me a proof of the love of God. I see that if I had been happy in the way I had chosen, it would mean that He had utterly forgotten me— left me to myself; and when that happens, it is not only ourselves we hurt; we spoil the lives of others.’

‘Do not let us deceive ourselves,’ he answered, in a voice which, despite his self-control, vibrated with keen anguish. ‘We have been robbed and cheated! In our final separation we lose the best possibilities that life can offer. I can only submit. But I cannot pretend to see in this chaos of duplicity any glimmering of Divine guidance. At last it is brought home to me that life may become so poor and maimed a thing that it is not greatly worth having.’

‘Oh, do not say that,’ she cried, looking into his face imploringly. ‘I know that in all the years to come there will be moments of anguished recollection. Twilight or the rose of dawn, a strain of music, a chance picture, the glow of sunset, a bud opening in spring, the song of a bird, any sight or sound that searches the depths of our nature—we know not why—all the things that touch us most may be charged with a burden of sadness—a sense of loss, a pain whose edge can never be entirely blunted. But the pain, and the loss, and the unconquerable yearning, let us take them by the hand, and make them the companions of our wiser hours. In seeking after the best that we can reach,


  ― 459 ―
each cup of suffering, every pang of sorrow, may breathe into our lives that finer spirit of all knowledge.’

‘Ah, Stella, Stella! must I lose you? hear your voice no more? What can comfort me for this?’ he said, looking at her with dimmed eyes. He turned away abruptly, and paced up and down the room. Then he came back to where she stood and resumed in a calmer voice: ‘And to make the loss more intolerable there is the fact that our happiness was wrecked by the miserable intrigue of that wretched woman. … There are creatures so low down in the scale of nature that the whole nervous system consists of a slender cord, that has a little bulge by way of a brain near the mouth. That is about the type, morally, of a being who could act as she did. And yet she is to go unpunished—screened even from any sense of shame! But no; I shall yet in some way expose her!’ said Langdale, with flashing eyes. It was not only the irreparable mischief to both their lives that made Mrs. Tareling's immunity from all penalty so intolerable to him, but also the recoil against injustice which, as a rule, moves a man more keenly than a woman. ‘Let us admit,’ he said in a lower tone, ‘that we have been betrayed—but as for consolation—’

‘Yes; betrayed by me!’ answered Stella in a low voice. Langdale made a gesture of denial; but Stella put her hand on his arm, and, standing close beside him, repeated: ‘Yes; it is true. In the end no one can betray us but ourselves. If, instead of being governed by wounded pride and fierce jealousy, I had resigned myself——’

‘That is, if you had been some other human being instead of yourself. Stella, this is unreasonable!’

‘And then,’ she went on, speaking with some difficulty, ‘it would be wrong for me not to tell you that in the first bitterness of our meeting I now feel I spoke in a way that reflected unduly on my husband.’

It was the first time she had spoken the word in his hearing, and as he heard it, Langdale coloured deeply.

‘You will, I think, believe,’ he returned, after a pause, ‘that I could not try to urge you to any line of action merely in my own interests. I have been content to drift in this. I have formed plans and given them up. The chief thing was that you should first recover. You had in


  ― 460 ―
a measure done so when this ardour for nullifying your life seized you. But beware of doing your own inner nature and instincts a great violence. … You were imposed upon and feloniously betrayed. Granted that you should not under any circumstances have been cheated into such a marriage, still, there are certain forms of temptation to which every nature will succumb under given circumstances. But is it right to attempt fidelity to a bond that may eventually wreck your life? Anyone may be hurried into wrong-doing—betrayed into an unmoral course of life—but the fatal thing is the not repenting, or foisting ecclesiastical perversions upon the conscience. Morals have been evolved to save, not to crush us—not to make it impossible for us to work out the salvation of our better natures. Of course, I do not use the word in its priestly sense.’

‘You are afraid for me,’ she answered in a faltering voice; ‘but believe me, weak and unstable as I have before been, I know now that I am no longer blinded. I am not afraid of you, Anselm. I am afraid of myself. If I went now with your sister. … Ah, you have understood what it meant. … We both know the tyrannical limitations of life. And then, do what we would—nothing could give us back the past—nothing.’

Her voice failed her, and there was silence for a little time.

‘I must abide by your decision,’ he said in a low voice.

Many thoughts had crowded into her mind that threatened to sweep away her composure. But the necessity of saying something of all she owed to him nerved her.

‘Will it comfort you at all to know that you have been in truth my best friend? In the days of my utmost weakness and despair you led me back from the brink of insanity … You were entirely forgetful of self, kind with the delicate kindness of a chivalrous nature—you must hear me. You helped me day by day, and yet kept out of my way. You knew you had only to speak in those dark days, and I would have gone with you gladly to the ends of the earth. No tie, no consideration, would have held me; you saved me from worse than death. … After all that had happened, you might well have considered that my life was yours. … It is so much the creed of the world that a man's strength does not consist in forbearance—in tender


  ― 461 ―
consideration of a woman's weakness. … Oh my friend, my friend, can you ever know from what an abyss you saved me? A man's life is so much more twofold than a woman's. He has his work and his place to fill in the world. She has the large leisure of home; and if at her side the phantom comes of broken vows and duties trampled under foot, the spring of her life is poisoned at the source. If our lives were given only for such happiness as we could clutch——’

He was deeply touched by the pathetic intensity of her voice—touched, too, by the truth of what she said. He knew how the world is strewn with the wrecks of anarchy in conduct. He was too close an observer of human affairs not to know that the wider and deeper a woman's nature is, the more surely does it suffer under the consciousness of having, in any crisis of life, chosen what was pleasant rather than what was right. And though he held that it would be as irrational to place all who repudiate the bond of marriage on the same level as it would be to condemn the legal tie because of its many and bitter failures, yet, in his calmer, more detached thoughts, all his experience of things as they are led him to shrink from the shadow of blame on the one woman who had exalted and widened his ideal of her sex. And yet, how well he knew that an open rupture, not only with the conventional decorums of society, but with a great law, is infinitely more healthful for a finely-tempered, sensitive nature than the slow moral corrosion of enforced companionship with a hopelessly inferior mind! It was, under the circumstances, inevitable that he should think much worse of Ritchie than he deserved. But he began to perceive that in the awakening of the strong religious instinct of her nature Stella might find an antidote against the more subtle evils of her lot. Only, all his training, as well as his inherited instincts on the question, led him to mistrust the variability of the devotional temperament. Could this impetus last?—or would it turn into a broken reed to wound her more incurably than ever before? Even in the midst of the dull, deep pain, the sense of an all-embracing catastrophe, the utter vacuity that for the time swallowed all which before had been of deep interest to him, this question rose up—forced itself on him.

‘This strong influence that has suddenly taken hold of


  ― 462 ―
you, Stella—are you sure it is something more than a phantasm that——’

‘I am glad you have asked this,’ she answered quickly. ‘There are some things we cannot well speak of unless we are sure of sympathy. The day after I had been in the church I went again, early in the morning. I felt smitten to the very soul—robbed of all the joy and pride of life. But the moment I looked upon that pale figure nailed on the cross, and knelt, not to pray, but simply to cry like a broken-hearted child who has wandered far, far from its father's house, and comes back too tired and frightened to do more than creep into a corner—then I knew that though I may never be an orthodox Catholic, yet the old faith had so far revived as to be an inspiring rule of life, to give a vivifying motive to every exertion. You know, there are some things, after all, that we can be quite sure of. We know, Anselm, you and I, that though our lives are to be widely sundered——’

Langdale gave a great sigh, which was almost a groan. At the sound Stella's face flushed faintly, and with an evident effort at composure she went on:

‘Yet the day can never come in which we shall be indifferent to each other. And in the same way we may know, with a conviction beyond dispute, that behind all the confusion and mystery of life there runs a great sane purpose with which we may join our wills and lives. In the end the most we can hope to do must be limited to a small patch of the world, and as far as our personal influence can reach. To spoil that for the sake of any happiness——You know the rough and ready classifications of the world——’

‘I apprehend your meaning, Stella. … Certainly, if our lives were given us chiefly for happiness, our parting to-day would be a crime. Perhaps it is not so.’

‘In very truth it is not so,’ returned Stella, a glow lighting up her whole face as she looked steadfastly at her friend.

‘And then, when you come out of the church—when you are in actual contact with the depths of human misery in this vast city—do you find any clue that satisfies your conscience and reason why a world, supposed to be under the loving rule of an omnipotent Creator, should present so strange a spectacle?’




  ― 463 ―

‘In the last three days,’ she answered slowly, ‘I have been a good deal with some people who are working among the poorest and some of the most depraved in the East-End. Ah, my God, what pictures have burnt themselves into my memory!—what ineffaceable ones of the faces of young girls that still keep something of the dewy innocence of childhood, and yet are engulfed in living death! Women unsexed, men without manhood, youth without purity, childhood that has never known the sanctity of home—yes, always where there are alleys reeking with bad air, are courts full of filth, where there are men sodden with drink and women in shameless rags, there, everywhere, are children in swarms. Two nights ago I could not sleep. They passed before me in endless processions, those maimed, ruined existences, fit only to be huddled out of sight—to be imprisoned like lepers, so as to stamp out the contagion. At last I could bear it no longer. I rose up in the darkness, and fell on my knees. But I could not pray. “O God, dost Thou not care at all?”—that was all I could say over and over, with a stupid, blank amazement. And then, all at once—how can I tell you? …’

The tears forced themselves into her eyes. She was very pale, and her lips were quivering. Yet all the time her face was lit with that grave spiritual light which irradiates the countenance when the heart is quickened with impersonal zeal and thought.

‘Try and tell me—I want to know,’ said Langdale in a low voice. His eyes were dim with feelings too poignant to be borne with clear sight—too deep to be relieved by words.

‘I knew that this, even this wild, cruel anarchy, was not born of chaos. It was the shadow side of the highest possibilities of our nature. Because we have power to aspire to communion with God, so human beings have the power to fall and be submerged in the black eddies of shame and pollution. This was the embodiment of that principle of evil which everyone who turns away from the pitiful egoism of self-seeking must strive against—must fight to subdue.

‘Then I saw that other great army of which you have often spoken to me—the men and women sown broadcast over the whole land, who, amid all the moral deformity of life, neither flee from the world nor are sick of it, nor


  ― 464 ―
despair of the capacity of our common nature for those things which are good and true and of lovely report. I saw them: women of lonely lives—often undistinguished, unknown—yet firm in the constancy of principle, touched with the gentleness of unweariable love; men of all grades, enfranchised from the corrupt propensities that make our race the willing slaves of evil, steadily, constantly working for the moral renovation of their country—each doing a little, each helping to stem the tide of human misery. Here, a pure-hearted, delicate girl, giving time and thought to hours of intercourse with rough factory lads and girls—wakening in a heart here and there the better impulses that lie dormant, often only because no care nor gentleness has breathed on the timid seeds and wooed them into life. … Yes, even the little I have seen helped me to estimate how true was what you once said, that almost all who have any by-play of time and means take thought for some of those less fortunately placed. To touch one or two minds to finer issues—to rescue one or two lives from the appalling depths ready to swamp them—this is not a very bold or ambitious object; and yet to set it before ourselves, we must be sure that no siren voice has deluded us into making the life of any fellow-creature more open to the temptations which beset him, more callous to belief in the goodness of others. Anselm, when these thoughts swept over me, my heart throbbed with gratitude to you—with pride in your unselfish goodness. It was to you I owed it that the Nessus robe of passion had not scorched and laid waste my life.’

He was too much moved to trust himself to speak for a little time. At last he said slowly:

‘I do not think that I will now go to the East. … May we not return to the old footing of friends? … Let me see you from time to time as long as you are in London. …’

There was a pleading tone in his voice to which every fibre of her nature responded. But her victory over herself was too hardly won, too insecure, too bitterly steeped in the struggles that seem to exhaust the very founts of action and resolve. She felt too keenly how impossible the tranquillity of friendship would be for them both for some time to come.

‘I think you should go with Amalie—she is very anxious about the boy. I want you to go. … And then,’ she added, not meeting his eyes while she said it, ‘perhaps in


  ― 465 ―
the time to come we may both find that a new plan of life opened to us after this parting.’

‘If you wish it very much, I will go for your sake,’ he answered.

Then she stood up to bid him farewell.

‘There is one question, Stella; will you let me ask it? You are satisfied that Ritchie knew nothing of the perfidy practised by his sister?’

‘Quite—quite! He is incapable of so mean an action—least of all against me.’

She raised her head proudly, and the look on her face cut him to the soul, and yet consoled him. Let those who have solved the contradictions of our inscrutably involved nature explain the enigma.

There was silence between them for a few moments. Then he took both her hands in his. Each looked for a little into the other's face, and they parted. A few moments after Langdale left the hotel he was hailed by an old friend —a physician—who insisted on carrying him off to St. James's Hospital, to see a man who mysteriously kept on living, while every principle known to medical science clearly proved that he should have died three days previously. Stella, in the meantime, was lying prone in a darkened room, lost to all thought or sensation, except the consciousness that her life had in very truth passed from her. But after a time she remembered that she had promised Ted to accompany him that evening to see Irving's ‘Macbeth,’ and she knew how infinitely disappointed he would be if she failed to keep the appointment. She therefore rose and summoned Maisie to dress her.

We are aided by the limitations of life, as well as by its rarer hours of illuminating insight. Habit, Routine, Custom—these three gray sisters, who in the liquid dew of youth fill us with languor, with impatient scorn and rebellion—how softly and securely they lead us by the hand when the wine-red roses of passion are overblown and trampled under foot!

previous
next