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"Ian, oh, Ian, what strange and dreadful things you have written to me!" Jasmine's letter ran--the letter which she told him she had written on that morning when all was lost. "Do you realize what you have said, and, saying it, have you thought of all it means to me? You have tried to think of what is best, I know, but have you thought of me? When I read your letter first, a flood of fire seemed to run through my veins; then I became as though I had been dipped in ether, and all the winds of an arctic sea were blowing over me.
"To go with you now, far away from the world in which we live and in which you work, to begin life again, as you say--how sweet and terrible and glad it would be! But I know, oh, I know myself and I know you! I am like one who has lived forever. I am not good, and I am not foolish, I am only mad; and the madness in me urges me to that visionary world where you and I could live and work and wander, and be content with all that would be given us--joy, seeing, understanding, revealing, doing.
"But Ian, it is only a visionary world, that world of which you speak. It does not exist. The overmastering love, the desire for you that is in me, makes for me the picture as it is in your mind; but down beneath all, the woman in me, the everlasting woman, is sure there is no such world.
"Listen, dear child--I call you that, for though I am only twenty-five I seem as aged as the Sphinx, and, like the Sphinx that begets mockery, so my soul, which seems to have looked out over unnumbered centuries, mocks at this world which you would make for you and me. Listen, Ian. It is not a real world, and I should not--and that is the pitiful, miserable part of it--I should not make you happy, if I were in that world with you. To my dire regret I know it. Suddenly you have roused in me what I can honestly say I have never felt before--strange, reckless, hungry feelings. I am like some young dweller of the jungle which, cut off from its kind tries, with a passion that eats and eats and eats away his very flesh to get back to its kind, to his mate, to that other wild child of nature which waits for the one appeasement of primeval desire.
"Ian, I must tell you the whole truth about myself as I understand it. I am a hopeless, painful contradiction; I have always been so. I have always wanted to be good, but something has always driven me where the flowers have a poisonous sweetness, where the heart grows bad. I want to cry to you, Ian, to help me to be good; and yet something drives me on to want to share with you the fruit which turns to dust and ashes in the long end. And behind all that again, some tiny little grain of honour in me says that I must not ask you to help me; says that I ought never to look into your eyes again, never touch your hand, nor see you any more; and from the little grain of honour comes the solemn whisper, 'Do not ruin him; do not spoil his life.'
"Your letter has torn my heart, so that it can never again be as it was before, and because there is some big, noble thing in you, some little, not ignoble thing is born in me. Ian, you could never know the anguished desire I have to be with you always, but, if I keep sane at all, I will not go--no, I will not go with you, unless the madness carries me away. It would kill you. I know, because I have lived so many thousands of years. My spirit and my body might be satisfied, the glory in having you all my own would be so great; but there would be no joy for you. To men like you, work is as the breath of life. You must always be fighting for something, always climbing higher, because you see some big thing to do which is so far above you.
"Yes, men like you get their chance sooner or later, because you work, and are ready to take the gifts of Fate when they appear and before they pass. You will be always for climbing, if some woman does not drag you back. That woman may be a wife, or it may be a loving and living ghost of a wife like me. Ian, I could not bear to see what would come at last--the disappointment in your face the look of hope gone from your eyes; your struggle to climb, and the struggle of no avail. Sisyphus had never such a task as you would have on the hill of life, if I left all behind here and went with you. You would try to hide it; but I would see you growing older hourly before my eyes. You would smile--I wonder if you know what sort of wonderful, alluring thing your smile is, Ian?--and that smile would drive me to kill myself, and so hurt you still more. And so it is always an everlasting circle of penalty and pain when you take the laws of life you get in the mountains in your hands and break them in pieces on the rocks in the valleys, and make new individual laws out of harmony with the general necessity.
"Isn't it strange, Ian, that I who can do wrong so easily still know so well and value so well what is right? It is my mother in me and my grandfather in me, both of them fighting for possession. Let me empty out my heart before you, because I know--I do not know why, but I do know, as I write--that some dark cloud lowers, gathers round us, in which we shall be lost, shall miss the touch of hand and never see each other's face again. I know it, oh so surely! I did not really love you years ago, before I married Rudyard; I did not love you when I married him; I did not love him, I could not really love any one. My heart was broken up in a thousand pieces to give away in little bits to all who came. But I cared for you more than I cared for any one else--so much more; because you were so able and powerful, and were meant to do such big things; and I had just enough intelligence to want to understand you; to feel what you were thinking, to grasp its meaning, however dimly. Yet I have no real intellect. I am only quick and rather clever--sharp, as Jigger would say, and with some cunning, too. I have made so many people believe that I am brilliant. When I think and talk and write, I only give out in a new light what others like you have taught me; give out a loaf where you gave me a crumb; blow a drop of water into a bushel of bubbles. No, I did not love you, in the big way, in those old days, and maybe it is not love I feel for you now; but it is a great and wonderful thing, so different from the feeling I once had. It is very powerful, and it is also very cruel, because it smothers me in one moment, and in the next it makes me want to fly to you, heedless of consequences.
"And what might those consequences be, Ian, and shall I let you face them? The real world, your world, England, Europe, would have no more use for all your skill and knowledge and power, because there would be a woman in the way. People who would want to be your helpers, and to follow you, would turn away when they saw you coming; or else they would say the superficial things which are worse than blows in the face to a man who wants to feel that men look to him to help solve the problems perplexing the world. While it may not be love I feel for you, whatever it is, it makes me a little just and unselfish now. I will not--unless a spring-time madness drives me to it to-day--I will not go with you.
"As for the other solution you offer, deceiving the world as to your purposes, to go far away upon some wild mission, and to die!
"Ah, no, you must not cheat the world so; you must not cheat yourself so! And how cruel it would be to me! Whatever I deserve--and in leaving you to marry Rudyard I deserved heavy punishment--still I do not deserve the torture which would follow me to the last day of my life if, because of me, you sacrificed that which is not yours alone, but which belongs to all the world. I loathe myself when I think of the old wrong that I did you; but no leper woman could look upon herself with such horror as I should upon myself, if, for the new wrong I have done you, you were to take your own life.
"These are so many words, and perhaps they will not read to you as real. That is perhaps because I am only shallow at the best; am only, as you once called me, 'a little burst of eloquence.' But even I can suffer, and I believe that even I can love. You say you cannot go on as things are; that I must go with you or you must die; and yet you do not wish me to go with you. You have said that, too. But do you not wonder what would become of me, if either of these alternatives is followed? A little while ago I could deceive Rudyard, and put myself in pretty clothes with a smile, and enjoy my breakfast with him and look in his face boldly, and enjoy the clothes, and the world and the gay things that are in it, perhaps because I had no real moral sense. Isn't it strange that out of the thing which the world would condemn as most immoral, as the very degradation of the heart and soul and body, there should spring up a new sense that is moral--perhaps the first true glimmering of it? Oh, dear love of my life, comrade of my soul, something has come to me which I never had before, and for that, whatever comes, my lifelong gratitude must be yours! What I now feel could never have come except through fire and tears, as you yourself say, and I know so well that the fire is at my feet, and the tears--I wept them all last night, when I too wanted to die.
"You are coming at eleven to-day, Ian--at eleven. It is now eight. I will try and send this letter to reach you before you leave your rooms. If not, I will give it to you when you come--at eleven. Why did you not say noon--noon--twelve of the clock? The end and the beginning! Why did you not say noon, Ian? The light is at its zenith at noon, at twelve; and the world is dark at twelve--at midnight. Twelve at noon; twelve at night; the light and the dark--which will it be for us, Ian? Night or noon? I wonder, oh, I wonder if, when I see you I shall have the strength to say, 'Yes, go, and come again no more.' Or whether, in spite of everything, I shall wildly say, 'Let us go away together.' Such is the kind of woman that I am. And you--dear lover, tell me truly what kind of man are you?
He read the letter slowly, and he stopped again and again as though to steady himself. His face became strained and white, and once he poured brandy and drank it off as though it were water. When he had finished the letter he went heavily over to the fire and dropped it in. He watched it burn, until only the flimsy carbon was left.
"If I had not gone till noon," he said aloud, in a nerveless voice--"if I had not gone till noon . . . Fellowes--did she--or was it Byng?"
He was so occupied with his thoughts that he was not at first conscious that some one was knocking.
"Come in," he called out at last.
The door opened and Rudyard Byng entered.
"I am going to South Africa, Stafford," he said, heavily. "I hear that you are going, too; and I have come to see whether we cannot go out together."
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