for the purpose of seeking to overcome
her resolution. The chasm between him and his
Now, as he approached nearer and nearer to her retreat, and no visible barrier
interposed, he felt that she was in reality separated from him farther than
ever. For him Margaret filled the air of the
At length he succeeded. Following her one day to St Peter’s, he concealed himself behind a column, while she knelt, not very far off, resting her hands on the marble railing which surrounds the tomb of St Peter. It was at a time when no one else was pear. Her veil was entirely off her face. Leaning back as she knelt, and looking upwards as if under the influence of an ecstasy, a gleam of light descended from the dome above her, and appeared to Noel to crown her as with a diadem of glory as it glowed amid her hair, while the expression of her pale heroic face was that of a saint, at once suffering, resigned, and triumphant.
At that instant was clearly revealed to him what had been
dimly hovering in his mind. Margaret sought peace through suffering. Had she really attained it? or was it the gleam of light from above which imparted to her aspect the glow of a triumph that was not really hers?
It was thus that he read her: –
‘She would only consent to sin on condition that she might suffer. She would take a course involving ruin and disgrace to herself, rather than receive honour for doing what she deemed unlawful. She would scorn to receive the world’s respect, while possessed by the conviction that she was undeserving of it. Self is nought. Right is all. Ah, Margaret; it will take a stronger than human love, a stronger than human duty, to win you from the inexorable Absolute that claims your soul.’
While Noel pondered thus, Margaret’s thoughts appeared to wander. She looked around as if disturbed by a vague apprehension. She saw no one, yet she pulled down her veil. Presently she rose, and prepared to leave the church. But instead of going straight to the main door, she approached the spot where Noel was standing. He determined to remain still and await her. His impression was, that she would pass by him without perceiving him. He was mistaken. Coming up close, she drew a deep breath, and said, –
‘It is you, then. You have been some time in
Clearly she did not quite know whether she was talking to him in the flesh or in the spirit.
‘I have not come to trouble you,’ he said; ‘but merely to gratify the intense longing I had to see you. But, Margaret, why will you think that you are alone in the world, with no one to care for, to love you?’
Passing her hand over her brow, she said, –
‘Can I have been thinking too much of myself? I hoped that you had forgotten me, and were learning to be happy in a new direction. What have you been doing with yourself? You look older and careworn.’
‘I have been doing nothing but – but waiting for you. Oh, Margaret,’ he added, passionately, how can you ignore reality in this way? It is not virtue, not religion, but merest superstition, to reject the great truths of love, no matter at what promptings. If you and I were sent into the world for any special purpose, it was to love each other. And now you insist on thwarting the divine decree that ordered our natures, regardless
of my misery, and your own, – yes, your own,’ he repeated emphatically, as she gently shook her head in dissent; for nothing shall persuade me that the Margaret I have ever loved so truly, can be happy while she knows that I am wasting life in pining for her.’
‘Believe me, Edmund,’ she replied, ‘that I act as appears to me to be right. You know well that it is no mere selfish impulse which I am obeying. Tell me what it is that you want of me.’ And she leant against the column as if to support herself to bear his answer.
‘I want you to be my all in all in the future, as you have been in the past. I want you to be my love, my life, and my wife. I want you to be all to me that a woman can be to a man, now and for evermore.’
Gathering herself together as by a mighty effort of will, she stood erect and unsupported before him, and said, slowly and firmly, –
‘Edmund, I love and respect you far too well to grant your request. I cannot enter a world which, if it knew what my heart has been, would scoff at me as one who loved another better than him to whom she was married. I cannot dwell by your side a loved, honoured, and happy wife, while conscious that there is a history you dare not disclose. No, no, the jewel that you wear before all men, must be one undimmed by such a cloud as rests upon me.’
He was about to speak, but she prevented him, saying, –
‘I know all you would say, and all you think, but I cannot do as you wish. In one other way than that which I have chosen, and only one, I can meet you. It depends upon yourself to accept or reject it.’
His eyes fastened eagerly on her, as he waited to know in what the new gleam of hope for him consisted. She went on, –
‘I cannot be your wife, but I will be all else to you. Take me, use me as you wish. So shall I find such happiness as I may have in your happiness, without the regret of being a lasting drag on your life. I shall not reproach you for having your eyes opened, and leaving me, for the worthier fate that certainly awaits you in the future. Speak,’ she added, in a soft tone of entreaty, as if she had brought herself really to desire what she offered. Say that yon will take me so, and I will try to give you no cause to repent.’
Noel gazed upon her for a few moments in silent wonder.
Should he kneel at her feet and adore her as a deity sanctifying that dome, by condescending, beneath its roof, to a loftier sacrifice of self than was ever made before; loftier in that it involved submission to sin, as well as to pain, and the misery of remorse? or should he be angry with her?
Whatever his real feeling, his words indicated the latter, – ‘Margaret, are you aware that you are offering to be my mistress?’
‘I know nothing of names,’ she said. ‘I only know that if you will come to me when you wish, and leave me when you wish, let it be often or seldom, as you please, I will endeavour to make you as happy as I can, and be thankful as for a duty performed. Will you take me so?’
‘And since when have you believed that no one but yourself can love? In what have I shown myself deficient, that you think me capable of accepting such a sacrifice from you?’
‘Do you think I should feel it one?’ she asked. I thought you knew me better. Rather would it be a sacrifice for me to court the humiliation of a second failure. Who knows but that in that closer relation which you require of me, I should fail again as I have failed once; and this time with you for the victim, bound for ever when too late the knowledge comes. – No, no, the sacrifice for me would be to follow the world. It is no sacrifice thus to indulge my pride; and I am too proud to hold you by a tie in which the soul’s content has no necessary part.’
It was clear to Noel that Margaret’s present mood was exalted alike above the reach of logic and of love. Her whole expression was one of abstraction. It was not to him in reality that her utterances were addressed, but to him in her imagination, as to one dimly seen in a vision. He was about to remind her that marriage is a matter of personal relation; that failure with one person does not in the least indicate a likelihood of failure with another; and that their whole past relations gave the lie to such a supposition in their own case. But she arrested him ere he began, and said, –
‘I will not take your answer now. Let me go. Do not follow me. Take time, and write to me. Two words, “I accept,” will be enough. I await them.’
And, casting a hurried but intense look of affection upon him, she hastened away and quitted the church.
If Margaret expected an answer, she expected it in vain.
That night Noel
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