You remember the time when your letters from home informed you of the fatal termination of our mother's illness? It is the time of which I am now speaking. A few hours only before she breathed her last, she called me to her bedside, and desired that we might be left together alone. Reminding me that her death was near, she spoke of my prospects in life; she noticed my want of interest in the studies which were then supposed to be engaging my attention, and she ended by entreating me to reconsider my refusal to enter the Church.
"Your father's heart is set upon it," she said. "Do what I ask of you, my dear, and you will help to comfort him when I am gone."
Her strength failed her: she could say no more. Could I refuse the last request she would ever make to me? I knelt at the bedside, and took her wasted hand in mine, and solemnly promised her the respect which a son owes to his mother's last wishes.
Having bound myself by this sacred engagement, I had no choice but to accept the sacrifice which it imperatively exacted from me. The time had come when I must tear myself free from all unworthy associations. No matter what the effort cost me, I must separate myself at once and forever from the unhappy woman who was not, who never could be, my wife.
At the close of a dull foggy day I set forth with a heavy heart to say the words which were to part us forever.
Her lodging was not far from the banks of the Thames. As I drew near the place the darkness was gathering, and the broad surface of the river was hidden from me in a chill white mist. I stood for a while, with my eyes fixed on the vaporous shroud that brooded over the flowing water--I stood and asked myself in despair the one dreary question: "What am I to say to her?"
The mist chilled me to the bones. I turned from the river-bank, and made my way to her lodgings hard by. "It must be done!" I said to myself, as I took out my key and opened the house door.
She was not at her work, as usual, when I entered her little sitting-room. She was standing by the fire, with her head down and with an open letter in her hand.
The instant she turned to meet me, I saw in her face that something was wrong. Her ordinary manner was the manner of an unusually placid and self-restrained person. Her temperament had little of the liveliness which we associate in England with the French nature. She was not ready with her laugh; and in all my previous experience, I had never yet known her to cry. Now, for the first time, I saw the quiet face disturbed; I saw tears in the pretty brown eyes. She ran to meet me, and laid her head on my breast, and burst into a passionate fit of weeping that shook her from head to foot.
Could she by any human possibility have heard of the coming change in my life? Was she aware, before I had opened my lips, of the hard necessity which had brought me to the house?
It was simply impossible; the thing could not be.
I waited until her first burst of emotion had worn itself out. Then I asked--with an uneasy conscience, with a sinking heart--what had happened to distress her.
She drew herself away from me, sighing heavily, and gave me the open letter which I had seen in her hand.
"Read that," she said. "And remember I told you what might happen when we first met."
I read the letter.
It was signed in initials only; but the writer plainly revealed himself as the man who had deserted her. He had repented; he had returned to her. In proof of his penitence he was willing to do her the justice which he had hitherto refused--he was willing to marry her, on the condition that she would engage to keep the marriage a secret, so long as his parents lived. Submitting this proposal, he waited to know whether she would consent, on her side, to forgive and forget.
I gave her back the letter in silence. This unknown rival had done me the service of paving the way for our separation. In offering her the atonement of marriage, he had made it, on my part, a matter of duty to her , as well as to myself, to say the parting words. I felt this instantly. And yet, I hated him for helping me.
She took my hand, and led me to the sofa. We sat down, side by side. Her face was composed to a sad tranquillity. She was quiet; she was herself again.
"I have refused to see him, she said, "until I had first spoken to you. You have read his letter. What do you say?"
I could make but one answer. It was my duty to tell her what my own position was in the plainest terms. I did my duty--leaving her free to decide on the future for herself. Those sad words said, it was useless to prolong the wretchedness of our separation. I rose, and took her hand for the last time.
I see her again now, at that final moment, as plainly as if it had happened yesterday. She had been suffering from an affection of the throat; and she had a white silk handkerchief tied loosely round her neck. She wore a simple dress of purple merino, with a black-silk apron over it. Her face was deadly pale; her fingers felt icily cold as they closed round my hand.
"Promise me one thing," I said, "before I go. While I live, I am your friend--if I am nothing more. If you are ever in trouble, promise that you will let me know it."
She started, and drew back from me as if I had struck her with a sudden terror.
"Strange!' she said, speaking to herself. " He feels as I feel. He is afraid of what may happen to me, in my life to come."
I attempted to reassure her. I tried to tell her what was indeed the truth--that I had only been thinking of the ordinary chances and changes of life, when I spoke.
She paid no heed to me; she came back and put her hands on my shoulders and thoughtfully and sadly looked up in my face.
"My mind is not your mind in this matter," she said. "I once owned to you that I had my forebodings, when we first spoke of this man's return. I may tell you now, more than I told you then. I believe I shall die young, and die miserably. If I am right, have you interest enough still left in me to wish to hear of it?"
She paused, shuddering--and added these startling words:
"You shall hear of it."
The tone of steady conviction in which she spoke alarmed and distressed me. My face showed her how deeply and how painfully I was affected.
"There, there!" she said, returning to her natural manner; "don't take what I say too seriously. A poor girl who has led a lonely life like mine thinks strangely and talks strangely--sometimes. Yes; I give you my promise. If I am ever in trouble, I will let you know it. God bless you--you have been very kind to me--good-by!"
A tear dropped on my face as she kissed me. The door closed between us. The dark street received me.
It was raining heavily. I looked up at her window, through the drifting shower. The curtains were parted: she was standing in the gap, dimly lit by the lamp on the table behind her, waiting for our last look at each other. Slowly lifting her hand, she waved her farewell at the window, with the unsought native grace which had charmed me on the night when we first met. The curtain fell again--she disappeared--nothing was before me, nothing was round me, but the darkness and the night.
IN two years from that time, I had redeemed the promise given to my mother on her deathbed. I had entered the Church.
My father's interest made my first step in my new profession an easy one. After serving my preliminary apprenticeship as a curate, I was appointed, before I was thirty years of age, to a living in the West of England.
My new benefice offered me every advantage that I could possibly desire--with the one exception of a sufficient income. Although my wants were few, and although I was still an unmarried man, I found it desirable, on many accounts, to add to my resources. Following the example of other young clergymen in my position, I det ermined to receive pupils who might stand in need of preparation for a career at the Universities. My relatives exerted themselves; and my good fortune still befriended me. I obtained two pupils to start with. A third would complete the number which I was at present prepared to receive. In course of time, this third pupil made his appearance, under circumstances sufficiently remarkable to merit being mentioned in detail.
It was the summer vacation; and my two pupils had gone home. Thanks to a neighboring clergyman, who kindly undertook to perform my duties for me, I too obtained a fortnight's holiday, which I spent at my father's house in London.
During my sojourn in the metropolis, I was offered an opportunity of preaching in a church, made famous by the eloquence of one of the popular pulpit-orators of our time. In accepting the proposal, I felt naturally anxious to do my best, before the unusually large and unusually intelligent congregation which would be assembled to hear me.
At the period of which I am now speaking, all England had been startled by the discovery of a terrible crime, perpetrated under circumstances of extreme provocation. I chose this crime as the main subject of my sermon. Admitting that the best among us were frail mortal creatures, subject to evil promptings and provocations like the worst among us, my object was to show how a Christian man may find his certain refuge from temptation in the safeguards of his religion. I dwelt minutely on the hardship of the Christian's first struggle to resist the evil influence--on the help which his Christianity inexhaustibly held out to him in the worst relapses of the weaker and viler part of his nature--on the steady and certain gain which was the ultimate reward of his faith and his firmness--and on the blessed sense of peace and happiness which accompanied the final triumph. Preaching to this effect, with the fervent conviction which I really felt, I may say for myself, at least, that I did no discredit to the choice which had placed me in the pulpit. I held the attention of my congregation, from the first word to the last.
While I was resting in the vestry on the conclusion of the service, a note was brought to me written in pencil. A member of my congregation--a gentleman--wished to see me, on a matter of considerable importance to himself. He would call on me at any place, and at any hour, which I might choose to appoint. If I wished to be satisfied of his respectability, he would beg leave to refer me to his father, with whose name I might possibly be acquainted.
The name given in the reference was undoubtedly familiar to me, as the name of a man of some celebrity and influence in the world of London. I sent back my card, appointing an hour for the visit of my correspondent on the afternoon of the next day.
THE stranger made his appearance punctually. I guessed him to be some two or three years younger than myself. He was undeniably handsome; his manners were the manners of a gentleman--and yet, without knowing why, I felt a strong dislike to him the moment he entered the room.
After the first preliminary words of politeness had been exchanged between us, my visitor informed me as follows of the object which he had in view.
"I believe you live in the country, sir?" he began.
"I live in the West of England," I answered.
"Do you make a long stay in London?"
"No. I go back to my rectory to-morrow."
"May I ask if you take pupils?"
"Have you any vacancy?"
"I have one vacancy."
"Would you object to let me go back with you to-morrow, as your pupil?"
The abruptness of the proposal took me by surprise. I hesitated.
In the first place (as I have already said), I disliked him. In the second place, he was too old to be a fit companion for my other two pupils--both lads in their teens. In the third place, he had asked me to receive him at least three weeks before the vacation came to an end. I had my own pursuits and amusements in prospect during that interval, and saw no reason why I should inconvenience myself by setting them aside.
He noticed my hesitation, and did not conceal from me that I had disappointed him.
"I have it very much at heart," he said, "to repair without delay the time that I have lost. My age is against me, I know. The truth is--I have wasted my opportunities since I left school, and I am anxious, honestly anxious, to mend my ways, before it is too late. I wish to prepare myself for one of the Universities--I wish to show, if I can, that I am not quite unworthy to inherit my father's famous name. You are the man to help me, if I can only persuade you to do it. I was struck by your sermon yesterday; and, if I may venture to make the confession in your presence, I took a strong liking to you. Will you see my father, before you decide to say No? He will be able to explain whatever may seem strange in my present application; and he will be happy to see you this afternoon, if you can spare the time. As to the question of terms, I am quite sure it can be settled to your entire satisfaction."
He was evidently in earnest--gravely, vehemently in earnest. I unwillingly consented to see his father.
Our interview was a long one. All my questions were answered fully and frankly.
The young man had led an idle and desultory life. He was weary of it, and ashamed of it. His disposition was a peculiar one. He stood sorely in need of a guide, a teacher, and a friend, in whom he was disposed to confide. If I disappointed the hopes which he had centered in me, he would be discouraged, and he would relapse into the aimless and indolent existence of which he was now ashamed. Any terms for which I might stipulate were at my disposal if I would consent to receive him, for three months to begin with, on trial.
Still hesitating, I consulted my father and my friends.
They were all of opinion (and justly of opinion so far) that the new connection would be an excellent one for me. They all reproached me for taking a purely capricious dislike to a well-born and well-bred young man, and for permitting it to influence me, at the outset of my career, against my own interests. Pressed by these considerations, I allowed myself to be persuaded to give the new pupil a fair trial. He accompanied me, the next day, on my way back to the rectory.
LET me be careful to do justice to a man whom I personally disliked. My senior pupil began well: he produced a decidedly favorable impression on the persons attached to my little household.
The women, especially, admired his beautiful light hair, his crisply-curling beard, his delicate complexion, his clear blue eyes, and his finely shaped hands and feet. Even the inveterate reserve in his manner, and the downcast, almost sullen, look which had prejudiced me against him, aroused a common feeling of romantic enthusiasm in my servants' hall. It was decided, on the high authority of the housekeeper herself, that "the new gentleman" was in love--and, more interesting still, that he was the victim of an unhappy attachment which had driven him away from his friends and his home.
For myself, I tried hard, and tried vainly, to get over my first dislike to the senior pupil.
I could find no fault with him. All his habits were quiet and regular; and he devoted himself conscientiously to his reading. But, little by little, I became satisfied that his heart was not in his studies. More than this, I had my reasons for suspecting that he was concealing something from me, and that he felt painfully the reserve on his own part which he could not, or dared not, break through. There were moments when I almost doubted whether he had not chosen my remote country rectory as a safe place of refuge from some person or persons of whom he stood in dread.
For example, his ordinary course of proceeding, in the matter of his correspondence, was, to say the least of it, strange.
He received no letters at my house. They waited for him at the village post office. He invariably called for them himself, and invariably forbore to trust any of my servants with his own letters for the post. Again, when we were out walking together, I more than once caught him looking furtively over his shoulder, as if he suspected some person of following him, for some evil purpose. Being constitutionally a hater of mysteries, I determined, at an early stage of our intercourse, on making an effort to clear matters up. There might be just a chance of my winning the senior pupil's confidence, if I spoke to him while the last days of the summer vacation still left us alone together in the house.
"Excuse me for noticing it," I said to him one morning, while we were engaged over our books--"I cannot help observing that you appear to have some trouble on your mind. Is it indiscreet, on my part, to ask if I can be of any use to you?"
He changed color--looked up at me quickly--looked down again at his book--struggled hard with some secret fear or secret reluctance that was in him--and suddenly burst out with this extraordinary question: "I suppose you were in earnest when you preached that sermon in London?"
"I am astonished that you should doubt it," I replied.
He paused again; struggled with himself again; and startled me by a second outbreak, even stranger than the first.
"I am one of the people you preached at in your sermon," he said. "That's the true reason why I asked you to take me for your pupil. Don't turn me out! When you talked to your congregation of tortured and tempted people, you talked of Me."
I was so astonished by the confession, that I lost my presence of mind. For the moment, I was unable to answer him.
"Don't turn me out!" he repeated. "Help me against myself. I am telling you the truth. As God is my witness, I am telling you the truth!"
"Tell me the whole truth," I said; "and rely on my consoling and helping you--rely on my being your friend."
In the fervor of the moment, I took his hand. It lay cold and still in mine; it mutely warned me that I had a sullen and a secret nature to deal with.
"There must be no concealment between us," I resumed. "You have entered my house, by your own confession, under false pretenses. It is your duty to me, and your duty to yourself, to speak out."
The man's inveterate reserve--cast off for the moment only--renewed its hold on him. He considered, carefully considered, his next words before he permitted them to pass his lips.
"A person is in the way of my prospects in life," he began slowly, with his eyes cast down on his book. "A person provokes me horribly. I feel dreadful temptations (like the man you spoke of in your sermon) when I am in the person's company. Teach me to resist temptation. I am afraid of myself, if I see the person again. You are the only man who can help me. Do it while you can."
He stopped, and passed his handkerchief over his forehead.
"Will that do?" he asked--still with his eyes on his book.
"It will not do," I answered. "You are so far from really opening your heart to me, that you won't even let me know whether it is a man or a woman who stands in the way of your prospects in life. You used the word 'person,' over and over again--rather than say 'he' or 'she' when you speak of the provocation which is trying you. How can I help a man who has so little confidence in me as that?"
My reply evidently found him at the end of his resources. He tried, tried desperately, to say more than he had said yet. No! The words seemed to stick in his throat. Not one of them would pass his lips.
"Give me time," he pleaded piteously. "I can't bring myself to it, all at once. I mean well. Upon my soul, I mean well. But I am slow at this sort of thing. Wait till to-morrow."
To-morrow came--and again he put it off.
"One more day!" he said. "You don't know how hard it is to speak plainly. I am half afraid; I am half ashamed. Give me one more day."
I had hitherto only disliked him. Try as I might (and did) to make merciful allowance for his reserve, I began to despise him now.
THE day of the deferred confession came, and brought an event with it, for which both he and I were alike unprepared. Would he really have confided in me but for that event? He must either have done it, or have abandoned the purpose which had led him into my house.
We met as usual at the breakfast-table. My housekeeper brought in my letters of the morning. To my surprise, instead of leaving the room again as usual, she walked round to the other side of the table, and laid a letter before my senior pupil--the first letter, since his residence with me, which had been delivered to him under my roof.
He started, and took up the letter. He looked at the address. A spasm of suppressed fury passed across his face; his breath came quickly; his hand trembled as it held the letter. So far, I said nothing. I waited to see whether he would open the envelope in my presence or not.
He was afraid to open it in my presence. He got on his feet; he said, in tones so low that I could barely hear him: "Please excuse me for a minute"--and left the room.
I waited for half an hour--for a quarter of an hour after that--and then I sent to ask if he had forgotten his breakfast.
In a minute more, I heard his footstep in the hall. He opened the breakfast-room door, and stood on the threshold, with a small traveling-bag in his hand.
"I beg your pardon," he said, still standing at the door. "I must ask for leave of absence for a day or two. Business in London."
"Can I be of any use?" I asked. "I am afraid your letter has brought you bad news?"
"Yes," he said shortly. "Bad news. I have no time for breakfast."
"Wait a few minutes," I urged. "Wait long enough to treat me like your friend--to tell me what your trouble is before you go."
He made no reply. He stepped into the hall and closed the door--then opened it again a little way, without showing himself.
"Business in London," he repeated--as if he thought it highly important to inform me of the nature of his errand. The door closed for the second time. He was gone.
I went into my study, and carefully considered what had happened.
The result of my reflections is easily described. I determined on discontinuing my relations with my senior pupil. In writing to his father (which I did, with all due courtesy and respect, by that day's post), I mentioned as my reason for arriving at this decision:--First, that I had found it impossible to win the confidence of his son. Secondly, that his son had that morning suddenly and mysteriously left my house for London, and that I must decline accepting any further responsibility toward him, as the necessary consequence.
I had put my letter in the post-bag, and was beginning to feel a little easier after having written it, when my housekeeper appeared in the study, with a very grave face, and with something hidden apparently in her closed hand.
"Would you please look, sir, at what we have found in the gentleman's bedroom, since he went away this morning?"
I knew the housekeeper to possess a woman's full share of that amicable weakness of the sex which goes by the name of "Curiosity." I had also, in various indirect ways, become aware that my senior pupil's strange departure had largely increased the disposition among the women of my household to regard him as the victim of an unhappy attachment. The time was ripe, as it seemed to me, for checking any further gossip about him, and any renewed attempts at prying into his affairs in his absence.