AFTER her discovery Margaret avoided Noel all day, and at night she read the verses again. It seemed to her as if they had burnt into her brain, for she already knew them by heart. Sleep came not to her. The hours flew by on noiseless wings, and daylight surprised her as by a premature dawning. She read them again now, while he was at breakfast, and murmured to herself, –
‘Then he feels as I feel, and what I feel must be love; – the love that James has so long sought from me in vain. Alas, what shall I do?’
So absorbed was she in her reverie that she forgot to return the paper to its hiding-place, ‘but sat with it in her hand gazing into vacancy; sat with it in utter oblivion of all, save her own late-comprehended emotions, until she found Noel standing before her with the look of a conscious culprit.
‘Can you forgive me?’ he asked.
‘Do feelings need forgiveness?’
‘Bless you for that,’ he said; ‘but my carelessness – I would not for the world give you the pain that – that ––’
‘I do not yet know,’ she interrupted, ‘whether I would rather be without the pain or not. Everything is so new, so strange to me, that I cannot tell what to think or say. Please let me be silent, and – and put these away.’
And giving him back the verses, with an appealing look, she placed her hand in his.
He kissed it with the fervent respect of reverential worship, and seated himself beside her in silence. For some time neither spoke. At length Margaret said, –
‘What does it mean?’
‘It means that you and I are at once the most happy and the most miserable of human beings.’
‘But I,’ she returned, ‘have been happy all the time, and have not known the misery.’
‘But James ––’
‘James, too, has been the happier. He always thought me a hard, unfeeling creature, until lately. I am not consciously different to him now, but I suppose my nature has undergone a change, and he ––’
‘He gets the benefit of our affection, without suspecting its cause,’ exclaimed Noel, with vehemence.
‘Yes; do you think he would mind?’ asked Margaret, simply.
Noel was too much affected by the spectacle of the pure innocence revealed by her question, to answer at once.
‘He is so good,’ continued Margaret, ‘that he cannot be angry at what is not wrong. And our love cannot be wrong, for I have given thanks for it in my prayers every night and morning, since I first saw you. Surely you do not think it wrong?’
‘Not wrong, certainly. But, as I said before, most unfortunate in our meeting only when too late.’
‘Ah!’ she cried, as if pierced by a sudden shaft, ‘I never thought of what might have been. Why – why did you put it into my mind?’
Noel was silent. Presently she exclaimed, –
‘I must try and go back to my dream. I was so happy in it. It is my first and only one. But for you,’ she added, with an effort at archness, ‘your loves have been as the steps of Jacob’s ladder which reached from earth to heaven. Can you be quite sure that I shall remain the topmost one?’
Clearly she did not yet realise the serious character of the situation. Noel resolved not to precipitate such knowledge, so he said, –
‘And this is the reason of your avoiding me all day yesterday, and going off this morning without me?’
‘Yes, I shrank from letting anything break in upon the current of my thoughts, lest the spell should be broken. But we shall have to leave our hilltop and go down to the hacienda to live, at least until the country becomes more settled.’
‘Well, you know the poem that says, “Love is of the valley;” but where will you live there?’
‘A house can be soon got ready in a remote corner of the enclosure, where we shall be more secure and but little inconvenienced by the people and the noise. James and I chose the spot this morning. There is a noble oak close by on which you must make a swing for the children.’
‘Am I to go there, too? I feared you were dismissing me.’
Turning on him a look of pure and deep affection, Margaret said, –
‘You think, then, that I ought to send you away?’
‘No, no; action is for me, not for you, if any action ought to be taken,’ he returned.
‘I am so content,’ said Margaret, ‘in the possession of my new idea and feeling that I require nothing but to remain perfectly passive and enjoy my thoughts.’
‘I have the same feeling,’ said Noel, but I fear that it would not long outlast our parting. It may be that at first the separation would scarcely seem real, and one would continue to be for a time entirely pervaded and possessed by a sentiment that seems to be an essential part of oneself. If I go away now, the feeling gradually, perhaps, but surely, will come upon me that I have left my soul behind me, and my misery will be proportioned to the uncertainty of our meeting again.’
Margaret shuddered as he spoke of a possible separation.
‘I used sometimes,’ she said, ‘when watching the sea ebbing from my little bay at Porlock, to think of its going out farther and farther, with no hope of a flow, and leaving the whole world bare and dry. It seems to me that my heart would be the same if you were to go away. I could not control myself unless you were by to help me. If the knowledge would grieve James, he would be more likely to find it out then than now. You must leave me those verses, and if he does find it out, I must make him read them, and then he will not be angry.’
‘How so?’ asked Noel.
‘Because then he will see that I cannot help loving you, any more than the others named there.’
‘I am afraid that he would hardly be satisfied even then,’ returned Edmund, with a smile. ‘But do you not know that people who love always consider themselves bound to hate any other person who may have preceded them?’
‘No. Why should they?’
‘You have never heard of such a feeling as jealousy?’
‘I do not think I should be jealous of your affection for any one else, more than one flower is jealous of another for the sun shining on it.’
‘But they would say that you were not properly in love unless you wanted the love all to yourself.’
‘Ah, I see. Jealousy implies a limitation; a belief that there is not enough for all. To the jealous their love is not as a sun, the boundless source of light and heat; but a poor taper whose dim and scanty rays must be carefully husbanded.
Jealousy, too, must mean envy. Your friends’ husbands must have felt that, had they known.’
Noel was on the point of saying, –
‘And do you think the husband is not to be envied in his turn?’ but he read Margaret too well to say a word that might arouse any apprehension that their relations could prove injurious to James’s happiness, or her own self-respect.
It was probably Noel’s faculty of reticence, almost as much as his faculty of sympathy, that won for him an entrance into so many hearts. The repose of his nature lulled the suspicion of man and woman alike. To love and not to show it, was his nature. To be loved without making effort to win it, was his fate. A dread power, whether for himself or for those with whom he came into contact. Margaret owned the fascination, but felt that she would have been superior to it unless it had been accompanied by a character that won her esteem. It was her very confidence in the force and genuineness of Edmund’s conscientiousness that, unconsciously to herself, allowed her whole heart to escape to him, without any misgiving as to the perfect propriety of her submission to the spell. In loving him she felt that she was not derogating from her allegiance to the Beautiful and the Good.
But there was something more than likeness of nature that attracted Margaret and Edmund to each other. His presence had chased away the unhappiness which, manifestly to him, clouded her life in spite of her efforts to conceal it. To him she owed the birth of all that had ever been bright in her life. The sympathy of nature, which enabled him to pass weeks in her constant society without once speaking slightingly or reproachfully to her, struck her as a marvel.
‘James thinks it good for me to be scolded sometimes,’ she had said, playfully. ‘He fears to spoil me by too much good nature.’ But, in the quiver on her lip and the tear in her eye, Noel read her gratitude to himself for his unvarying kindness and deference towards her.
With her little fairy offspring clasping the glories of her neck, she had said, –
‘This has always been my greatest delight. I think that when I feel these darlings clinging to me I am perfectly happy.’ And Noel saw that the joy of the mother was accepted as a compensation for the trials of the wife. But he gained no insight
into the mystery, not even when on asking if James was fond of children, she said that he thought it a mistake their coming so soon and so often. Nor was he much enlightened when wandering in the forest one holiday Maynard himself observed, with a certain irritation in his tone, –
‘Margaret is not a woman, and has no business with children. I scarcely consider her their mother;’ and left Noel to wonder whether he was merely expressing his own bitterness; or whether, suspecting him of an over-esteem for her, he wished to lower her in his regard.
To Margaret herself James did not hesitate to declare his opinion of her lack of womanly qualities; and the contrast between his view and that which led Edmund to invest her with all possible perfections, could not fail to confirm and strengthen her attachment.
Thus it was the old fable of the wind and the beam over again, as it was in the beginning and ever will be to the end. While all force failed to penetrate to the depths of her nature, she unwittingly threw them wide open to the genial sunshine of a perfect sympathy. Her whole life, and idea of life, were now so different to any that she had before imagined, that she could not but wonder how it might have been had James, at the first commencement of their union, endeavoured to win her by patience and forbearance instead of compelling her by angry reproaches.
No formal communication was made to Noel by either side respecting the characters and mutual relations of his friends. It was only by putting together the half-uttered allusions and suggestions which fell undesignedly from one or the other, and reading them by the light of his own intuitions, that he arrived at any consistent theory on the subject.
As for Maynard, it was hardly to be expected that the severe student, the keen analyst, the daring experimenter in ail other domains of nature, should hesitate to apply his usual successful method of investigation when a woman’s heart or his own happiness was the subject. What was the use of his science if it could not ascertain and repair a defect of feeling? If an obscure phrase of an ancient author could be tom to pieces and reduced to its constituent elements until it yielded its meaning to the pestle and mortar of criticism, why should not the secret of a heart be got at by a similar process? And had he not a sure testimony to its efficacy in the comprehension
of his own nature to which his ecclesiastical and historical researches had already led him?
Of the sympathy that is justice, Maynard knew and felt much; but to the sympathy that is patience he was a stranger. Life is short and truth is infinite; therefore, for him, the earnest student must be ever impatient and unresting. Thus, the effect of James’s character and treatment was to withdraw Margaret from nearly all her old instinctive devout aspiration and trust, and land her in a world of bewildering and tormenting perplexity with an omnipotent Vivisector for its ruling deity; until it came that site for her meant torture, and the very birth of her children was hailed only as bringing danger and a chance of escape by the gates of death.
James’s peculiar education had developed another element in his character, which had served to surround Margaret with darkness until she was irrevocably committed. It showed itself in a certain priestly mysticism in his conversations with her, that suppressing altogether the real nature of their relations under their coming marriage, led her to view their union as a purely spiritual and intellectual one. No doubt the influence of her own intense purity and unconsciousness had something to do with his reserve in this respect; but it was not the less a most serious error in a man who wanted a woman, and not a beatified spirit, for his wife. His conviction, that if she had known all she would not have accepted him, involved his own moral condemnation. Knowing her nature to be what it was, it was his duty to think for both; – if he could have thought; but, alas! love and fear hid this from him. But having won her assent under a false pretence, he should at least have had patience with her until her heart was grown and they stood side by side upon the same level. Failing to win the love that he wanted, be availed himself of the profound compassionateness of her nature, to obtain through pity for his sufferings a consideration unprompted by love; and then he tormented both himself and her either by his remorse for his selfishness, or by his reproaches for the coldness of her nature, and his misfortune in having married her. Margaret could not even boast, as it may be hoped many a wife can boast, on recalling her bridal days, ‘Ah, we were so happy at first.’ A fancied reluctance to take his arm on leaving the church after their marriage had made him seize her by the wrist and almost drag her along, saying, ‘You belong to me now!’ At that moment she felt
that she would have given worlds to be free. But her fate was fixed, and her perfect goodness made her recoil from any rebellion against her new duties; for she felt that it was her duty to make the best of the situation. Doubtless, she would have conquered, if he would but have let her! Surely not in vain would have been all her tears, and prayers, and struggles, all the humiliations and chastisements of soul, by which she sought to bring herself into conformity with his will, had she only had herself to control. Backed by a little forbearance, a little self-suppression on his part, the victory might have been won. A little resolution, trifling in comparison with that which she was ever exercising, would have saved their happiness from total wreck. But he, of whose studies the mystery of the affections had formed no part, could only answer her piteous appeal, – ‘I am indeed trying to love you as you wish. Only give me time,’ – by bitter taunts for having spoiled his life by marrying him when she knew that she did not love him, by the forced exhibition, on the most trivial pretext, of a jealousy which he did not really feel, or by ascribing her conduct to wilful indifference, until in the last exhaustion of her fortitude she would exclaim, –
‘Oh James, what an Inquisitor was lost in you. The flesh cannot heal while mangled and bleeding beneath the knife of the surgeon; and my heart cannot grow when plucked out by the roots and exposed to your bitter mocking sarcasms.’
Thus all the miseries were here summed up which ever cursed a marriage between a man of ardent temperament and advanced imagination, and a girl who, though a woman of women in capacity of intellect and conscience, remained a child in all other respects. Had Maynard but said, ‘I have waited for years to secure her person; it is now my task to develop and win her heart,’ and so laboured patiently in silence and hope, seeking to win her love by an exhibition of the highest beauty of which his character was capable, it cannot but be that all would have gone well, and he would sooner or later have triumphed in her submission.
Yet it was even while charging her with being cold and haughty, and unwomanly in her incapacity for love, that he adored her as an absolute perfection. Knowing that no one had ever yet elicited any response from her heart, he refused to ascribe it to a positive defect in her nature, and came rather to wish that she might experience a grand passion for some one,
believing that it would soften her towards himself by teaching her to comprehend his suffering. He was first led to fancy that Noel might be the man who was destined to touch her heart, by observing a decrease in the amount and freedom of their conversation together. ‘They seem to understand each other, for they have got past the talking stage,’ was his reflection; but he had no idea how well they understood each other; and Noel, who perceived the blunder of indulging in silence, renewed the habit of conversation with such animation as to almost efface the suggestion from James’s mind.
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