THE loftiest and most precipitous of Alpine peaks remained unscaled by man. Its very inaccessibility excited in mountaineers an ardent longing to surmount it. At length, after many a vain attempt to reach even its base, one more skilful or more bold than the rest discovered a ridge that seemed to lead to its very summit. In the elation of his expected triumph, he trod with confidence the knife-like edge of his perilous path, until it led him so near to the flank of the
hitherto unapproachable giant, that, in the foreshortening effect of the clear mountain air, it seemed to him that victory was already in his grasp.
Then came his disappointment. A few steps farther, and before him yawned a chasm so deep, and broad, and steep, that nought without wings could hope to cross it. The adventurer might gaze in longing and despair upon the crown that, gleaming high above him, mocked his aspirations and his endeavours, but he had nought to do but turn round, and in weariness and dejection retrace his steps.
Such a chasm as that which robbed the scientific assailant of the Alps of his
imagined triumph over the
Long after the first bewildering agony of the shock of James’s death, Margaret had remained as if paralysed with grief. Noel alone understood her well enough to know that her keenest pangs were those of self-reproach. Sophia Bevan wrote to him, weeks afterwards, –
‘I never saw or heard of such unrelenting sorrow. She can do nothing but walk wildly through the grounds, refusing all companionship. Once I ventured to say how fortunate it was that you had guessed his haunt, otherwise he might have been there still, and we all in dreadful suspense. She answered, “Oh, that I had followed him, and been buried under the stone with him!”
‘I don’t understand it, and whatever I don’t understand is apt to make me angry. It is not as if they had been so very, very happy together. I doubt if he would have taken on so for her, though he was much the most in love of the two. But then we women always care more for you men than you deserve.’
Noel determined to see her himself, but in such a way as to indicate nothing of his old feeling.
It was necessary for her to empower some one to act as her agent in the disposal of her share of the mine. Instructing
a solicitor to make an appointment with her by letter for a certain date, but without naming him, Noel went himself, taking the necessary documents.
Entering the room unannounced, he found her sitting, gazing at the fire-place, lost in reverie, the picture of wan despair. Controlling himself as well as he could, he placed the papers on a table beside her, and said softly, –
‘This is where you are to sign.’
She started at his voice, and gazed up at his face with an earnest, troubled look. He said, gently, –
‘I have taken care that all is right. You will trust me.’
Taking the pen, she signed her name at the places indicated, but uttered no word. He gathered the papers together, and was moving slowly toward the door, when she succeeded overcoming her paralysis, and said, ‑
‘Do not think me ungrateful. I cannot talk yet.’
This was the only time Noel saw Margaret before he went to
‘I determined to do something to rouse Margaret, if possible, even though I had
to break through your injunctions, and recall
‘ “Do you say that he, that Edmund Noel, has returned to
‘ “Yes, to be sure,” I broke out. “Who else did you suppose was to arrange about your property?”
‘ “Edmund thought it best, my dear,” said mamma, “for him to go himself and settle matters. He would not allow us to say anything to you about it, as he thought you might be distressed.”
‘She looked at one, and then at the other, and tried to speak, but her eyes filled with tears, and her voice was choked, and she got up and hastily left the room. They are the first tears she has been known to shed. We have hopes of her now.’
Noel had not heard again, for he had told Sophia that he
might be home before an answer could reach him. He arrived in London in July, and on going to his bankers, who were also Margaret’s, learnt that she had gone to Italy in the early spring, but that Lady Bevan and Sophia were in London. Depositing the proceeds of the Mexican property, and telling the banker that he would shortly communicate with him respecting their investment, he hastened to the Bevans.
Sophia was out, but Lady Bevan received him with motherly affection. Quietly, but with deep feeling and appreciation, she gave him Margaret’s recent history.
‘The sweet child,’ she said, ‘is of the rarest order of natures. I believe she was breaking her heart, not so much for the loss of her husband, as for having, as she deems, failed in her duty by not being able to reciprocate his passionate idolatry for her. James was a man whose mind knew no repose. Before he loved, his whole energy went in pursuit of science. When he loved, he devoted it to his love, to Margaret’s cost and his own. Life was such a torment to him that death was a blessing. He would not let her love him as she could, because she was unable to love him as he required. He repulsed her with bitterness, because the temperature of her affection was below that of his. And she, poor darling, blames herself, as if it had been possible for her to alter her nature, or his.
‘She imagines it to be her duty now to provide for her children by her own
exertions. She had nothing, you know, of her own, save a small settlement that I
made on her when I first took her to live with me, and increased on her
marriage; and James had only his Mexican interests. Margaret has no thought or
expectation of getting anything on account of the latter, in the sad state of
things in that country; and has actually gone to
And so, in
March, they all set off for
Lady Bevan was rejoiced to learn the unexpected success of his enterprise, and much interested in his account of the extraordinary conjunction of circumstances that made it possible. He told her that he proposed to invest the amount by distributing it among a number of various government securities, colonial and foreign, so that one might be a safeguard against the other, and a far higher average rate of interest be obtained with less risk than by any other way.
‘She will be quite rich,’ said Lady Bevan. ‘I wonder how the intelligence will affect her.’
‘I have a great favour to ask of you,’ said Edmund. ‘Do not allude to the subject at all, to her; but leave that with me. I am going to write, and inform her generally of what I have done; but shall not go into any particulars, beyond saying that she may draw upon her bankers as freely as she can have any occasion to do. You and I can understand that deep wounds heal slowly, and that some natures are capable of deeper wounds than others. It would probably trouble her just now to have the fact of her unexpected affluence thrust upon her in such a way as to compel her to take notice of it. When she is well enough to wish to know all about it, she will inquire of her own accord.’
‘I see. You have the patience that poor James lacked.’
Anxious to avoid any personal reference in such a connection, Noel said that he must now take his departure, but would soon call again to see Sophia.
‘One moment,’ said Lady Bevan. ‘I have been looking through my poor cousin Littmass’s latest writings, those upon which he was engaged at the time of his death, and I have thought they would interest you. Now that his son no longer lives to be pained by them, there is no reason for keeping them hidden. If, as seems to me likely, he had both James and Margaret in his mind when he wrote them, he may have had deeper reasons than we suspected for objecting to their marriage. The perusal of them has enabled me to understand her better than I could otherwise have done.’
Noel took the packet of papers which Lady Bevan gave him, and departed. Of his own conviction that at the bottom of Margaret’s conduct lay an instinctive longing to do penance
for fancied defects of duty towards James, he said nothing.
There was another matter, too, on which he was equally reserved. No one but
himself should know that he was about to invest by far the largest portion of
the purchase-money he had brought from
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