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It was almost with bewilderment that Mrs. Helmer revisited Thornwick. The near past seemed to have vanished like a dream that leaves a sorrow behind it, and the far past to take its place. She had never been accustomed to reflect on her own feelings; things came, were welcome or unwelcome, proved better or worse than she had anticipated, passed away, and were mostly forgotten. With plenty of faculty, Letty had not yet emerged from the chrysalid condition; she lived much as one in a dream, with whose dream mingle sounds and glimmers from the waking world. Very few of us are awake, very few even alive in true, availing sense. "Pooh! what stuff!" says the sleeper, and will say it until the waking begins to come.
On the threshold of her old home, then, Letty found her old self awaiting her; she crossed it, and was once more just Letty, a Letty wrapped in the garments of sorrow, and with a heaviness at the heart, but far from such a miserable Letty as during the last of her former life there. Little joy had been hers since the terrible night when she fled from its closed doors; and now that she returned, she could take up everything where she had left it, except the gladness. But peace is better than gladness, and she was on the way to find that.
Mrs. Wardour, who, for all her severity, was not without a good- sized heart, and whoso conscience had spoken to her in regard of Letty far oftener than any torture would have made her allow, was touched with compassion at sight of her worn and sad look; and, granting to herself that the poor thing had been punished enough, even for her want of respect to the house of Thornwick, broke down a little, though with well-preserved dignity, and took the wandering ewe-lamb to her bosom. Letty, loving and forgiving always, nestled in it for a moment, and in her own room quietly wept a long time. When she came out, Mrs. Wardour pleased herself with the fancy that her eyes were red with the tears of repentance; but Letty never dreamed of repenting, for that would have been to deny Tom, to cut off her married life, throw it from her, and never more see Tom.
By degrees, rapid yet easy, she slid into all her old ways; took again the charge of the dairy as if she had never left it; attended to the linen; darned the stockings; and in everything but her pale, thin face, and heavy, exhausted heart, was the young Letty again. She even went to the harness-room to look to Cousin Godfrey's stirrups and bits; but finding, morning after morning for a whole week, that they had not once been neglected, dismissed the care-not without satisfaction.
Mrs. Wardour continued kind to her; but every now and then would allow a tone as of remembered naughtiness to be sub-audible in speech or request. Letty, even in her own heart, never resented it. She had been so used to it in the old days, that it seemed only natural. And then her aunt considered her health in the kindest way. Now that Letty had known some of the troubles of marriage, she felt more sympathy with her, did not look down upon her from quite such a height, and to Letty this was strangely delightful. Oh, what a dry, hard, cold world this would grow to, but for the blessing of its many sicknesses!
When Godfrey saw her moving about the house as in former days, but changed, like one of the ghosts of his saddest dreams, a new love began to rise out of the buried seed of the old. In vain he reasoned with himself, in vain ho resisted. The image of Letty, with its trusting eyes fixed on him so "solemn sad," and its watching looks full of ministration, haunted him, and was too much for him. She was never the sort of woman he could have fancied himself falling in love with; he did in fact say to himself that she was only almost a lady-but at the word his heart rebuked him for a traitor to love and its holy laws. Neither in person was she at all his ideal. A woman like Hesper, uplifted and strong, broad-fronted and fearless, large-limbed, and full of latent life, was more of the ideal he could have written poetry about. But we are deeper than we know. Who is capable of knowing his own ideal? The ideal of a man's self is hid in the bosom of God, and may lie ages away from his knowledge; and his ideal of woman is the ideal belonging to this unknown self: the ideal only can bring forth an ideal. He can not, therefore, know his own ideal of woman; it is, nevertheless --so I presume--this his own unknown ideal that makes a man choose against his choice. Gladly would Godfrey now have taken Letty to his arms. It was no longer anything that from boyhood he had vowed rather to die unmarried, and let the land go to a stranger, than marry a widow. He had to recall every restraining fact of his and her position to prevent him from now precipitating that which he had before too long delayed. But the gulf of the grave and the jealousy of a mother were between them; for, if he were again to rouse her suspicions, she would certainly get rid of Letty, as she had before intended, so depriving her of a home, and him of opportunity. He kept, therefore, out of Letty's way as much as he could, went more about the farm, and took long rides.
Nothing was further from Letty than any merest suspicion of the sort of regard Godfrey cherished for her. There was in her nothing of the self-sentimental. Her poet was gone from her, but she did not therefore take to poetry; nay, what poetry she had learned to like was no longer anything to her, now her singing bird had flown to the land of song. To her, Tom was the greatest, the one poet of the age; he had been hers--was hers still, for did ho not die telling her that he would go on watching till she came to him? He had loved her, she knew; he had learned to love her better before he died. She must be patient; the day would come when she should be a Psyche, as he had told her, and soar aloft in search of her mate. The sense of wifehood had grown one with her consciousness. It mingled with all her prayers, both in chamber and in church. As she went about the house, she was dreaming of her Tom--an angel in heaven, she said to herself, but none the less her husband, and waiting for her. If she did not read poetry, she read her New Testament; and if she understood it only in a childish fashion, she obeyed it in a child-like one, whence the way of all wisdom lay open before her. It is not where one is, but in what direction he is going. Before her, too, was her little boy--borne in his father's arms, she pictured him, and hearing from him of the mother who was coming to them by and by, when God had made her good enough to rejoin them!
But, while she continued thus simple, Godfrey could not fail to see how much more of a woman she had grown: he was not yet capable of seeing that she would--could never hare got so far with him, even if he had married her.
Love and marriage are of the Father's most powerful means for the making of his foolish little ones into sons and daughters. But so unlike in many cases are the immediate consequences to those desired and expected, that it is hard for not a few to believe that he is anywhere looking after their fate--caring about them at all. And the doubt would be a reasonable one, if the end of things was marriage. But the end is life--that we become the children of God; after which, all things can and will go their grand, natural course; the heart of the Father will be content for his children, and the hearts of the children will be content in their Father.
Godfrey indulged one great and serious mistake in reference to Letty, namely, that, having learned the character of Tom through the saddest of personal experience, she must have come to think of him as he did, and must have dismissed from her heart every remnant of love for him. Of course, he would not hint at such a thing, he said to himself, nor would she for a moment allow it, but nothing else could be the state of her mind! He did not know that in a woman's love there is more of the specially divine element than in a man's--namely, the original, the unmediated. The first of God's love is not founded upon any merit, rests only on being and need, and the worth that is yet unborn.
The Redmains were again at Durnmelling--had been for some weeks; and Sepia had taken care that she and Godfrey should meet--on the footpath to Testbridge, in the field accessible by the breach in the ha-ha--here and there and anywhere suitable for a little detention and talk that should seem accidental, and be out of sight. Nor was Godfrey the man to be insensible to the influence of such a woman, brought to bear at close quarters. A man less vulnerable--I hate the word, but it is the right one with Sepia concerned, for she was, in truth, an enemy--might perhaps have yielded room to the suspicion that these meetings were not all so accidental as they appeared, and as Sepia treated them; but no glimmer of such a thought passed through the mind of Godfrey. He knew nothing of all that my readers know to Sepia's disadvantage, and her eyes were enough to subdue most men from the first--for a time at least. Had it not been for the return of Letty, she would by this time have had him her slave: nothing but slavery could it ever be to love a woman like her, who gave no love in return, only exercised power. But although he was always glad to meet her, and his heart had begun to beat a little faster at sight of her approach, the glamour of her presence was nearly destroyed by the arrival of Letty; and Sepia was more than sharp enough to perceive a difference in the expression of his eyes the next time she met him. At the very first glance she suspected some hostile influence at work--intentionally hostile, for persons with a consciousness like Sepia's are always imagining enemies. And as the two worst enemies she could have were the truth and a woman, she was alternately jealous and terrified: the truth and a woman together, she had not yet begun to fear; that would, indeed, be too much!
She soon found there was a young woman at Thornwick, who had but just arrived; and ere long she learned who she was--one, indeed, who had already a shadowy existence in her life--was it possible the shadow should be now taking solidity, and threatening to foil her? Not once did it occur to her that, were it so, there would be retribution in it. She had heard of Tom's death through "The Firefly," which had a kind, extravagant article about him, but she had not once thought of his widow--and there she was, a hedge across the path she wanted to go! If the house of Durnmelling had but been one story higher, that she might see all round Thornwick!
For some time now, as I have already more than hinted, Sepia had been fashioning a man to her thrall--Mewks, namely, the body- servant of Mr. Redmain. It was a very gradual process she had adopted, and it had been the more successful. It had got so far with him that whatever Sepia showed the least wish to understand, Mewks would take endless trouble to learn for her. The rest of the servants, both at Durnmelling and in London, were none of them very friendly with her--least of all Jemima, who was now with her mistress as lady's-maid, the accomplished attendant whom Hesper had procured in place of Mary being away for a holiday.
The more Sepia realized, or thought she realized, the position she was in, the more desirous was she to get out of it, and the only feasible and safe way, in her eyes, was marriage: there was nothing between that and a return to what she counted slavery. Rather than lift again such a hideous load of irksomeness, she would find her way out of a world in which it was not possible, she said, to be both good and comfortable: she had, in truth, tried only the latter. But if she could, she thought, secure for a husband this gentleman-yeoman, she might hold up her head with the best. Even if Galofta should reappear, she would know then how to meet him: with a friend or two, such as she had never had yet, she could do what she pleased! It was hard work to get on quite alone--or with people who cared only for themselves! She must have some love on her side! some one who cared for her!
From all she could learn, there was nothing that amounted even to ordinary friendship between Mr. Wardour and the young widow. She was in the family but as a distant poor relation--"Much as I am myself!" thought Sepia, with a bitter laugh that even in her own eyes she should be comparable to a poor creature like Letty. The fact, however, remained that Godfrey was a little altered toward her: she must have been telling him something against her-- something she had heard from that detestable little hypocrite who was turned away on suspicion of theft! Yes--that was how Sepia talked to herself about Mary.
One morning, Letty, finding she had an hour's leisure, for her aunt did not pursue her as of old time, wandered out to the oak on the edge of the ha-ha, so memorable with the shadowy presence of her Tom. She had not been seated under it many minutes before Godfrey caught sight of her from his horse's back: knowing his mother was gone to Testbridge, he yielded to an urgent longing, took his horse to the stable, and crossed the grass to where she sat.
Letty was thinking of Tom--what else was there of her own to do?- -thinking like a child, looking up into the cloud-flecked sky, and thinking Tom was somewhere there, though she could not see him: she must be good and patient, that she might go up to him, as he could not come down to her--if he could, he would have come long ago! All the enchantment of the first days of her love had come back upon the young widow; all the ill that had crept in between had failed from out her memory, as the false notes in music melt in the air that carries the true ones across ravine and river, meadow and grove, to the listening ear. Letty lived in a dream of her husband--in heaven, "yet not from her"--such a dream of bliss and hope as in itself went far to make up for all her sorrows.
She was sitting with her back toward the tree and her face to Thornwick, and yet she did not see Godfrey till he was within a few yards of her. She smiled, expecting his kind greeting, but was startled to hear from behind her instead the voice of a lady greeting him. She turned her head involuntarily: there was the head of Sepia rising above the breach in the ha-ha, and Godfrey had turned aside and run to give her his hand.
Now Letty knew Sepia by sight, from the evening she had spent at the old hall; more of her she knew nothing. From the mind of Tom, in his illness, her baleful influence had vanished like an evil dream, and Mary had not thought it necessary to let him know how falsely, contemptuously, and contemptibly, she had behaved toward him. Letty, therefore, had no feeling toward Sepia but one of admiration for her grace and beauty, which she could appreciate the more that they were so different from her own.
"Thank you," said Sepia, holding fast by Godfrey's hand, and coming up with a little pant. "What a lovely day it is for your haymaking! How can you afford the time to play knight-errant to a distressed damsel?"
"The hay is nearly independent of my presence," replied Godfrey. "Sun and wind have done their parts too well for my being of much use."
"Take me with you to see how they are getting on. I am as fond of hay as Bottom in his translation."
She had learned Godfrey's love of literature, and knew that one quotation may stand for much knowledge.
"I will, with pleasure," said Godfrey, perhaps a little consoled in the midst of his disappointment; and they walked away, neither taking notice of Letty.
"I did not know," she said to herself, "that the two houses had come together at last! What a handsome couple they make!"
What passed between them is scarcely worthy of record. It is enough to say that Sepia found her companion distrait, and he felt her a little invasive. In a short while they came back together, and Sepia saw Letty under the great bough of the Durnmelling oak. Godfrey handed her down the rent, careful himself not to invade Durnmelling with a single foot. She ran home, and up to a certain window with her opera-glass. But the branches and foliage of the huge oak would have concealed pairs and pairs of lovers.
Godfrey turned toward Letty. She had not stirred.
"What a beautiful creature Miss Yolland is!" she said, looking up with a smile of welcome, and a calmness that prevented the slightest suspicion of a flattering jealousy.
"I was coming to you," returned Godfrey. "I never saw her till her head came up over the ha-ha.--Yes, she is beautiful--at least, she has good eyes."
"They are splendid! What a wife she would make for you, Cousin Godfrey! I should like to see such a two."
Letty was beyond the faintest suggestion of coquetry. Her words drove a sting to the heart of Godfrey. He turned pale. But not a word would he have spoken then, had not Letty in her innocence gone on to torture him. She sprang from the ground.
"Are you ill, Cousin Godfrey?" she cried in alarm, and with that sweet tremor of the voice that shows the heart is near. "You are quite white!--Oh, dear! I've said something I oughtn't to have said! What can it be? Do forgive me, Cousin Godfrey." In her childlike anxiety she would have thrown her arms round his neck, but her hands only reached his shoulders. He drew back: such was the nature of the man that every sting tasted of offense. But he mastered himself, and in his turn, alarmed at the idea of having possibly hurt her, caught her hands in his. As they stood regarding each other with troubled eyes, the embankment of his prudence gave way, and the stored passion broke out.
"You don't mean you would like to see me married, Letty?" he groaned.
"Yes, indeed, I do, Cousin Godfrey! You would make such a lovely husband!"
"Ah! I thought as much! I knew you never cared for me, Letty!"
He dropped her hands, and turned half aside, like a figure warped with fire.
"I care for you more than anybody in the world--except, perhaps, Mary," said Letty: truthfulness was a part of her.
"And I care for you more than all the world!--more than very being--it is worthless without you. O Letty! your eyes haunt me night and day! I love you with my whole soul."
"How kind of you, Cousin Godfrey!" faltered Letty, trembling, and not knowing what she said. She was very frightened, but hardly knew why, for the idea of Godfrey in love with her was all but inconceivable. Nevertheless, its approach was terrible. Like a fascinated bird she could not take her eyes off his face. Her knees began to fail her; it was all she could do to stand. But Godfrey was full of himself, and had not the most shadowy suspicion of how she felt. He took her emotion for a favorable sign, and stupidly went on:
"Letty, I can't help it! I know I oughtn't to speak to you like this--so soon, but I can't keep quiet any longer. I love you more than the universe and its Maker. A thousand times rather would I cease to live, than live without you to love me. I have loved you for years and years--longer than I know. I was loving you with heart and soul and brain and eyes when you went away and left me."
"Cousin Godfrey!" shrieked Letty, "don't you know I belong to Tom?"
And she dropped like one lifeless on the grass at his feet.
Godfrey felt as if suddenly damned; and his hell was death. He stood gazing on the white face. The world, heaven, God, and nature were dead, and that was the soul of it all, dead before him! But such death is never born of love. This agony was but the fog of disappointed self-love; and out of it suddenly rose what seemed a new power to live, but one from a lower world: it was all a wretched dream, out of which he was no more to issue, in which he must go on for ever, dreaming, yet acting as one wide awake! Mechanically he stooped and lifted the death-defying lover in his arms, and carried her to the house. He felt no thrill as he held the treasure to his heart. It was the merest material contact. He bore her to the room where his mother sat, laid her on the sofa, said he had found her under the oak-tree--and went to his study, away in the roof. On a chair in the middle of the floor he sat, like a man bereft of all. Nothing came between him and suicide but an infinite scorn. A slow rage devoured his heart. Here he was, a man who knew his own worth, his faithfulness, his unchangeableness, cast over the wall of the universe, into the waste places, among the broken shards of ruin! If there was a God--and the rage in his heart declared his being --why did he make him? To make him for such a misery was pure injustice, was willful cruelty! Henceforward he would live above what God or woman could do to him! He rose and went to the hay- field, whence he did not return till after midnight.
He did not sleep, but he came to a resolution. In the morning he told his mother that he wanted a change; now that the hay was safe, he would have a run, he hardly knew where--possibly on the Continent; she must not be uneasy if she did not hear from him for a week or two; perhaps he would have a look at the pyramids. The old lady was filled with dismay; but scarcely had she begun to expostulate when she saw in his eyes that something was seriously amiss, and held her peace--she had had to learn that with both father and son. Godfrey went, and courted distraction. Ten years before, he would have brooded: that he would not do now: the thing was not worth it! His pride was strong as ever, and both helped him to get over his suffering, and prevented him from gaining the good of it. He intrenched himself in his pride. No one should say he had not had his will! He was a strong man, and was going to prove it to himself afresh!
Thus thought Godfrey; but he is in reality a weak man who must have recourse to pride to carry him through. Only, if a man has not love enough to make a hero of him, what is he to do?
He was away a month, and came back in seeming health and spirits. But it was no small relief to him to find on his arrival that Letty was no longer at Thornwick.
She had gone through a sore time. To have made Godfrey unhappy, made her miserable; but how was she to help it? She belonged to Tom! Not once did she entertain the thought of ceasing to be Tom's. She did not even say to herself, what would Tom do if she forgot and forsook him--and for what he could not help! for having left her because death took him away! But what was she to do? She must not remain where she was. No more must she tell his mother why she went.
She wrote to Mary, and told her she could not stay much longer. They were very kind, she said, but she must be gone before Godfrey came back.
Mary suspected the truth. The fact that Letty did not give her any reason was almost enough. The supposition also rendered intelligible the strange mixture of misery and hardness in Godfrey's behavior at the time of Letty's old mishap. She answered, begging her to keep her mind easy about the future, and her friend informed of whatever concerned her.
This much from Mary was enough to set Letty at comparative ease. She began to recover strength, and was able to write a letter to Godfrey, to leave where he would find it, in his study.
It was a lovely letter--the utterance of a simple, childlike spirit--with much in it, too, I confess, that was but prettily childish. She poured out on Godfrey the affection of a womanchild. She told him what a reverence and love he had been to her always; told him, too, that it would change her love into fear, perhaps something worse, if he tried to make her forget Tom. She told him he was much too grand for her to dare love him in that way, but she could look up to him like an angel--only he must not come between her and Tom. Nothing could be plainer, simpler, honester, or stronger, than the way the little woman wrote her mind to the great man. Had he been worthy of her, he might even yet, with her help, have got above his passion in a grand way, and been a great man indeed. But, as so many do, he only sat upon himself, kept himself down, and sank far below his passion.
When he went to his study the day after his return, he saw the letter. His heart leaped like a wild thing in a trap at sight of the ill-shaped, childish writing; but--will my lady reader believe it?--the first thought that shot through it was--"She shall find it too late! I am not one to be left and taken at will!" When he read it, however, it was with a curling lip of scorn at the childishness of the creature to whom he had offered the heart of Godfrey Wardour. Instead of admiring the lovely devotion of the girl-widow to her boy-husband, he scorned himself for having dreamed of a creature who could not only love a fool like Tom Helmer, but go on loving him after he was dead, and that even when Godfrey Wardour had condescended to let her know he loved her. It was thus the devil befooled him. Perhaps the worst devil a man can be posessed withal, is himself. In mere madness, the man is beside himself; but in this case he is inside himself; the presiding, indwelling, inspiring sprit of him is himself, and that is the hardest of all to cast out. Godfrey rose form the reading of that letter cured, as he called it. But it was a cure that left the wound open as a door to the entrance of evil things. He tore the letter into a thousand pieces, and throw them into the empty grate--not even showed it the respect of burning it with fire.
Mary had got her affairs settled, and was again in the old place, the hallowed temple of so many holy memories. I do not forget it was a shop I call a temple. In that shop God had been worshiped with holiest worship--that is, obedience--and would be again. Neither do I forget that the devil had been worshiped there too-- in what temple is he not? He has fallen like lightning from heaven, but has not yet been cast out of the earth. In that shop, however, he would be worshiped no more for a season.
At once she wrote to Letty, saying the room which had been hers was at her service as soon as she pleased to occupy it: she would take her father's.
Letty breathed a deep breath of redemption, and made haste to accept the offer. But to let Mrs. Wardour know her resolve was a severe strain on her courage.
I will not give the conversation that followed her announcement that she was going to visit Mary Marston. Her aunt met it with scorn and indignation. Ingratitude, laziness, love of low company, all the old words of offense she threw afresh in her face. But Letty could not help being pleased to find that her aunt's storm no longer swamped her boat. When she began, however, to abuse Mary, calling her a low creature, who actually gave up an independent position to put herself at the beck and call of a fine lady, Letty grew angry.
"I must not sit and hear you call Mary names, aunt," she said. "When you cast me out, she stood by me. You do not understand her. She is the only friend I ever had-except Tom."
"You dare, you thankless hussy, to say such a thing in the house where you've been clothed and fed and sheltered for so many years! You're the child of your father with a vengeance! Get out of my sight!"
"Aunt--" said Letty, rising.
"No aunt of yours!" interrupted the wrathful woman.
"Mrs. Wardour," said Letty, with dignity, "you have been my benefactor, but hardly my friend: Mary has taught me the difference. I owe you more than you will ever give me the chance of repaying you. But what friendship could have stood for an hour the hard words you have been in the way of giving me, as far back as I can remember! Hard words take all the sweetness from shelter. Mary is the only Christian I have ever known."
"So we are all pagans, except your low-lived lady's-maid! Upon my word!"
"She makes me feel, often, often," said Letty, bursting into tears, "as if I were with Jesus himself--as if he must be in the room somewhere."
So saying, she left her, and went to put up her things. Mrs. Wardour locked the door of the room where she sat, and refused to see or speak to her again. Letty went away, and walked to Testbridge.
"Godfrey will do something to make her understand," she said to herself, weeping as she walked.
Whether Godfrey ever did, I can not tell.
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