IT was with no
pleasant feelings that Noel took his way to
His arrival was quite unexpected, except by Margaret, who owned that she had no
reason, which could be called a reason, to look for him. It was a relief to him
to find that only Lady Bevan and Margaret were at home, Sophia and James having
gone with a party to
‘There is nothing to be done,’ she said sadly, ‘except for me to die, and let him marry some one who will by turns laugh at him, and take him seriously to task, and so help him to conquer his own morbid feelings. Indeed my departure would of itself restore him to a healthier tone. He is one to whom love in the present is torment, but its memory might be a blessing.’
They drove out in the afternoon. Margaret chose the
‘I should never be jealous of him, for they are all yours.’
‘That is one thing that puzzles and angers James,’ she replied, ‘for he says they are all his, and yet they are like me.
But we must not talk or think in this direction. How wonderful to find ourselves thus again! It is like one more late summer’s day on the eve of winter. But why did you come, and what do you mean to do?’
He told her that he came with a vague wild hope of benefiting her by drawing off
James’s thoughts, perhaps by taking him back to
‘James says he won’t go back without me,’ she said, and I hardly think it desirable for him that he should.’
‘You shall never return if I can help it,’ exclaimed Noel, whether he goes or not. Rather than subject you to that life again, I will go and manage the mine myself, or sell it.’
She replied gently, but firmly, that she should shrink from no duty whatever to James, considering any devotion she could show him would be but a small compensation for the unhappiness which her failure of sympathy had brought upon his life. And then she renewed her entreaties to Noel to make an effort and detach himself from his present aimless existence, and seek a legitimate and possible career elsewhere.
‘Believe me, I am not altogether unselfish in asking this of you,’ she said; ‘for my own position is far harder now, when to my own difficulties I have to add the thought of yours. You must not give me credit for a strength altogether superhuman. I feel very weak sometimes. There is no other way for you to help me.’’
‘You don’t mean Sophia, this time?’ he asked.
‘Oh no, I have no one in my mind. I think the excitement of the selection and pursuit would do much to wean you from present ideas. But I must tell you of an unfortunate slip I made a few days ago. I quite deserved the scolding James gave me for it. Sophia came in and said, “Oh do tell me what I am to do. Here’s the Prince di R– wanting me to marry him, and I don’t know what excuse to make.”
‘ “Need you make any, my dear?” asked my aunt; while I, – forgetting myself and James, who was present, – cried out,
“Marry! does he think you mad?”
‘I must do James the justice to say that he restrained himself before the others as I never saw him do before, but it was only to make amends afterwards, and I am afraid he has not forgiven me yet. My aunt was so evidently shocked that
I added something about his being a foreigner and of a different religion.’
‘And has she accepted him?’
‘No, she has neither accepted nor refused him, decidedly. She told him that she
likes him very well as a friend, but that she did not come to
‘That is as much as to accept him,’ said Noel.
‘So we told her, but she said, “Oh no, these foreign princes don’t mind that sort of thing. He thinks more of the convenience of having my two or three thousand a year added to his income than of anything else.” ’
‘You know, I suppose, that you have been advising me to do that same mad thing.’
‘Ah, I see. But my inconsistency is only apparent. It seems as impossible to me that you should be unhappy in your love, as that others should be happy. It is so different, too, for a man and for a woman.’
Next day the party returned from
‘I am afraid, my dear, you will never trust your husband to me again. I was so nearly the cause of his being killed. They had raised the Obelisk which we went to see, completely out of the ground, and had got one end suspended by ropes at some height in the air, and I asked James to read me the inscriptions. He was standing just below it and reaching up to try and make them out, when one of the workmen cautioned him to move from underneath, and he had scarcely done so when the ropes slipped or broke, and the immense mass came down with a crash. At first we all thought he must be crushed beneath it; for the cloud of dust hid him from our sight. But the workman’s warning saved him, and we have all come back none the worse, except for the fright it gave us.’
Margaret showed the greatest solicitude, to which James, however, seemed indifferent; and Sophia went on to say that
instead of being thankful for his escape, he did nothing for nearly an hour afterwards but mutter to himself: –
‘Nearly killed by an obelisk! nearly killed by an obelisk!’ an exclamation of which she could not for her life see the joke.
‘Do you see it?’ she asked suddenly of Edmund.
Noel laughed, and said,
‘Why, did you ever before hear of any one being killed by an obelisk? The very novelty is enough to account for any number of ejaculations. It is something to discover a new mode of death. Perhaps he thought it a particularly appropriate end for a life devoted, as so much of his has been, to antiquariam research. Those who take liberties with obelisks must expect to perish by obelisks. But why not ask himself.’
‘So I did, but he looked oddly at me, and said he hoped I should never be nearly killed by an obelisk.’
‘Where are you staying?’ asked James.
‘Close by, at the Europa.’
‘Oh, but you must come here,’ said Sophia. Our house has abundance of room. Mamma, how came you to let him go to an hotel?’
‘Thanks,’ said Edmund, ‘there has been no lack of hospitality on Lady Bevan’s part, I assure you. But I
really prefer the hotel for the few days I am likely to remain in
‘Few days!’ exclaimed Sophia. ‘I hoped you had come to stay as long as we do.’
‘No, I have seized a short holiday to run over and see Maynard.’
‘And I have so much to show you,’ said Sophia, in a tone of disappointment. ‘At any rate, you will breakfast, and lunch, and dine, and everything with us, if you won’t sleep.’
‘Thanks, I dare say I shall contrive to give you enough of my company, but for to-night I want to carry off Maynard to dine with me, as we need not trouble you ladies with business.’
‘The idea of anybody in
‘Very good, then we will settle it so,’ said Noel, glad to secure his point of staying at the hotel without farther battling; for he felt now a repugnance to sleeping under the same roof with James and Margaret, which he had not experienced in Mexico. And the feeling revealed to him the fact that his love for Margaret had reached a farther stage in its progress and development.
It was a relief to Maynard to get this first meeting over without any reference
to the stratagem whereby he had sent Margaret home from
They talked of Mr Tresham’s death and the state of his affairs; of Mexico and its political situation; of the mine and its prospects; of the necessity that either of them should return to it; of Noel’s own prospects and occupation; and, last of all, of that which was all the time uppermost in the minds of both, and a vast satisfaction and relief to Maynard it was to find that Noel treated his extraordinary step of sending Margaret home as he did, as entirely a matter of course, and the best and only thing he could have done.
‘You may be sure, my dear fellow, we spoke often of you on board, and wondered what you were doing at such an hour and how you got on by yourself. Of course, Margaret was inclined to feel a little aggrieved at not being consulted in the choice of an escort, but she carne round on considering the difficulties of your position, and thought far more of your loneliness than of her own situation. Since she joined her aunt I have been most thankful that things turned out so, for her society was the greatest comfort to my poor uncle in his last moments.’
Maynard derived vast relief from this free and unconcerned reference to matters that touched him so nearly; and on rising to go into the salon in obedience to Sophia’s summons, he grasped Noel’s hand in token of a friendship most sincere and affectionate. Noel felt a pang as he returned the pressure, but dismissed it at once, saving to himself, –
‘I have no cause for self-reproach. He has been the happier through me. Rather should I shrink from him as Margaret’s tormentor. But, poor fellow, he can’t help himself, and he suffers also.’
‘A pretty time for you gentlemen to sit over your wine,’ was the greeting they received; ‘but I suppose I must forgive
you under the circumstances. Poor Margaret is so upset by your escape, sir, that she has gone to bed. I don’t see what more she could have done in your honour if you hadn’t escaped. No, you are not to go to her. She really is suffering, and will be the better for being left alone.’
Sophia was but half right. It was true that Margaret was suffering, and that the accident to James was the cause; but no mere physical event could affect her in this way. The narrow escape from losing him, and the thought of the position she was so nearly being in at that moment, with him lying crushed and silent for ever, and no farther opportunity left to her to repair the wreck of his life’s happiness, – these reflections came upon her in a flood of agony, on the surface of which floated only the dark cloud of her own self-reproach. Margaret was one who never justified herself. That she was in fault, was always her first feeling when anything went wrong with those with whom she had to do. Noel had discovered this peculiarity of her nature, and reminded her that she was now upon earth, and no longer in a sphere where love is omnipotent to keep all evil from the beloved; and that it was unreasonable to indulge in self-reproach for the limitations of her mortality. She said that she could not help it. It seemed to her that true love ought to conquer all things; else, what meaning had the symbol and the legend which she loved above all others, – the illumined cross and the ‘in hoc signo vinces,’ – but the triumph of love even over death?
And, so, now she lay and tormented herself with the reflection that she had not done all that she might to make James happy. She forgot all those peculiarities of his nature which made it incongruous with her own; and while exalting him in her imagination as a perfection of which she was unworthy, she clothed her own spirit in the sackcloth and ashes of deepest humiliation, and longed for his approach that she might throw herself at his feet, ask pardon for the past, and promise to be to him all that he could wish in the future.
She was in the height of her exaltation when he entered her room. Springing forward she threw herself on his neck, exclaiming, –
‘Oh, my darling husband, it seems as if I had never appreciated, never loved you till now when I have so nearly lost
you. You will forgive me all my past coldness, and believe that I have always at least tried to be what you wished.’
But the idea of her incapacity for love was too firmly fixed in his mind to be thus readily reversed. He uttered a short dry laugh and said, –
‘I wish they had not told you. The accident was but a trifle, and had nothing in it worthy to effect a miracle and work the change of a nature. You are unwell and excited, and so fancy that you care for me. Never mind; go to sleep and forget it. You will be yourself in the morning. I promise not to remember it against you.’
‘Oh James, how can you be so hard?’ said she, quitting him and returning towards her bed.
‘Have you forgotten all the lessons you have given me?’ he asked, sarcastically; and leaving the room abruptly, he took his hat and cloak, and wandered forth over Rome, never resting or pausing until, some hours after midnight, he found himself sitting amid the ruins of the Coliseum, curiously watched by the French sentinel whose duty it was to guard the edifice from desecration and conspirators.
He sat there so long and motionless that the man several times approached him closely; but without speaking. At length he said, –
‘Monsieur, it is forbidden to enter the ruins at night without a pass.’
‘Ah, I forgot,’ said James, starting. ‘Tell me, is there a greater ruin than this, anywhere?’
‘Assuredly, no, Monsieur.’
‘Or anything harder than this stone I am sitting on?’
‘Monsieur is pleased to joke.’
‘You are wrong. There is a greater ruin here than the Coliseum, for there is the wreck of lives and the ruin of happiness. And there is something harder than this stone wherever there is a human heart, be it man’s or woman’s!’
‘Ah, la femme! Vous avez raison, Monsieur!’ and James, with a short laugh at the feeling revealed by the man’s
sympathetic tone, rose and bade him good night, and walked slowly homewards,
thinking to himself that even in the agents of the ruins which he had been
contemplating, – in the destroyers of the Coliseum and his own happiness, –
there was a strange nearness of identity. For was not Margaret of the
fair-haired races whose ruthless descent from the North had ravaged
But James did not extend his analysis to himself. Neither did
it occur to him to carry the parallel to its legitimate issue; or he
might have seen that as
In this respect, probably as much as in any other, consisted an essential difference between James and Noel. The latter did not repudiate self-examination.