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James was vastly relieved. His people's obvious delight, Mary's quiet happiness, were very grateful to him, and if he laughed at himself a little for feeling so virtuous, he could not help thoroughly enjoying the pleasure he had given. He was willing to acknowledge now that his conscience had been uneasy after the rupture of his engagement: although he had assured himself so vehemently that reason was upon his side, the common disapproval, and the influence of all his bringing-up, had affected him in his own despite.
"When shall we get married, Mary?" he asked, when the four of them were sitting together in the garden.
"Quickly!" cried Colonel Parsons.
"Well, shall we say in a month, or six weeks?"
"D'you think you'll be strong enough?" replied Mary, looking affectionately at him. And then, blushing a little: "I can get ready very soon."
The night before, she had gone home and taken out the trousseau which with tears had been put away. She smoothed out the things, unfolded them, and carefully folded them up. Never in her life had she possessed such dainty linen. Mary cried a while with pleasure to think that she could begin again to collect her little store. No one knew what agony it had been to write to the shops at Tunbridge Wells countermanding her orders, and now she looked forward with quiet delight to buying all that remained to get.
Finally, it was decided that the wedding should take place at the beginning of October. Mrs. Parsons wrote to her brother, who answered that he had expected the event all along, being certain that his conversation with James would eventually bear fruit. He was happy to be able to congratulate himself on the issue of his diplomacy; it was wonderful how easily all difficulties were settled, if one took them from the point of view of a man of the world. Mrs. Jackson likewise flattered herself that the renewed engagement was due to her intervention.
"I saw he was paying attention to what I said," she told her husband. "I knew all he wanted was a good, straight talking to."
"I am sorry for poor Dryland," said the Vicar.
"Yes, I think we ought to do our best to console him. Don't you think he might go away for a month, Archibald?"
Mr. Dryland came to tea, and the Vicar's wife surrounded him with little attentions. She put an extra lump of sugar in his tea, and cut him even a larger piece of seed-cake than usual.
"Of course you've heard, Mr. Dryland?" she said, solemnly.
"Are you referring to Miss Clibborn's engagement to Captain Parsons?" he asked, with a gloomy face. "Bad news travels fast."
"You have all our sympathies. We did everything we could for you."
"I can't deny that it's a great blow to me. I confess I thought that time and patience on my part might induce Miss Clibborn to change her mind. But if she's happy, I cannot complain. I must bear my misfortune with resignation."
"But will she be happy?" asked Mrs. Jackson, with foreboding in her voice.
"I sincerely hope so. Anyhow, I think it my duty to go to Captain Parsons and offer him my congratulations."
"Will you do that, Mr. Dryland?" cried Mrs. Jackson. "That is noble of you!"
"If you'd like to take your holiday now, Dryland," said the Vicar, "I daresay we can manage it."
"Oh, no, thanks; I'm not the man to desert from the field of battle."
Mrs. Jackson sighed.
"Things never come right in this world. That's what I always say; the clergy are continually doing deeds of heroism which the world never hears anything about."
The curate went to Primpton House and inquired whether he might see Captain Parsons.
"I'll go and ask if he's well enough," answered the Colonel, with his admirable respect for the cloth.
"Do you think he wants to talk to me about my soul?" asked James, smiling.
"I don't know; but I think you'd better see him."
Mr. Dryland came forward and shook hands with James in an ecclesiastical and suave manner, trying to be dignified, as behoved a rejected lover in the presence of his rival, and at the same time cordial, as befitted a Christian who could bear no malice.
"Captain Parsons, you will not be unaware that I asked Miss Clibborn to be my wife?"
"The fact was fairly generally known in the village," replied James, trying to restrain a smile.
Mr. Dryland blushed.
"I was annoyed at the publicity which the circumstance obtained. The worst of these little places is that people will talk."
"It was a very noble deed," said James gravely, repeating the common opinion.
"Not at all," answered the curate, with characteristic modesty. "But since it was not to be, since Miss Clibborn's choice has fallen on you, I think it my duty to inform you of my hearty goodwill. I wish, in short, to offer you again my sincerest congratulations."
"I'm sure that's very kind of you."
* * * * * * *
Two days, later Mrs. Jackson called on a similar errand.
She tripped up to James and frankly held out her hand, neatly encased as ever in a shining black kid glove.
"Captain Parsons, let us shake hands, and let bygones be bygones. You have taken my advice, and if, in the heat of the moment, we both said things which we regret, after all, we're only human."
"Surely, Mrs. Jackson, I was moderation itself?--even when you told me I should infallibly go to Hell."
"You were extremely irritating," said the Vicar's lady, smiling, "but I forgive you. After all, you paid more attention to what I said than I expected you would."
"It must be very satisfactory for you to think that."
"You know I have no ill-feeling towards you at all. I gave you a piece of my mind because I thought it was my duty. If you think I stepped over the limits of--moderation, I am willing and ready to apologise."
"What a funny woman you are!" said James, looking at her with a good-humoured, but rather astonished smile.
"I'm sure I don't know what makes you think so," she answered, bridling a little.
"It never occurred to me that you honestly thought you were acting rightly when you came and gave me a piece of your mind, as you call it. I thought your motives were simply malicious and uncharitable."
"I have a very high ideal of my duties as a clergyman's wife."
"The human animal is very odd."
"I don't look upon myself as an animal, Captain Parsons."
"I wonder why we all torture ourselves so unnecessarily. It really seems as if the chief use we made of our reason was to inflict as much pain upon ourselves and upon one another as we possibly could."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean, Captain Parsons."
"When you do anything, are you ever tormented by a doubt whether you are doing right or wrong?"
"Never," she answered, firmly. "There is always a right way and a wrong way, and, I'm thankful to say, God has given me sufficient intelligence to know which is which; and obviously I choose the right way."
"What a comfortable idea! I can never help thinking that every right way is partly wrong, and every wrong way partly right. There's always so much to be said on both sides; to me it's very hard to know which is which."
"Only a very weak man could think like that."
"Possibly! I have long since ceased to flatter myself on my strength of mind. I find it is chiefly a characteristic of unintelligent persons."
* * * * * * *
It was Mary's way to take herself seriously. It flattered her to think that she was not blind to Jamie's faults; she loved him none the less on their account, but determined to correct them. He had an unusual way of looking at things, and an occasional flippancy in his conversation, both of which she hoped in time to eradicate. With patience, gentleness, and dignity a woman can do a great deal with a man.
One of Mary's friends had a husband with a bad habit of swearing, which was cured in a very simple manner. Whenever he swore, his wife swore too. For instance, he would say: "That's a damned bad job;" and his wife answered, smiling: "Yes, damned bad." He was rather surprised, but quickly ceased to employ objectionable words. Story does not relate whether he also got out of the habit of loving his wife; but that, doubtless, is a minor detail. Mary always looked upon her friend as a pattern.
"James is not really cynical," she told herself. "He says things, not because he means them, but because he likes to startle people."
It was inconceivable that James should not think on all subjects as she had been brought up to do, and the least originality struck her naturally as a sort of pose. But on account of his illness Mary allowed him a certain latitude, and when he said anything she did not approve of, instead of arguing the point, merely smiled indulgently and changed the subject. There was plenty of time before her, and when James became her husband she would have abundant opportunity of raising him to that exalted level upon which she was so comfortably settled. The influence of a simple Christian woman could not fail to have effect; at bottom James was as good as gold, and she was clever enough to guide him insensibly along the right path.
James, perceiving this, scarcely knew whether to be incensed or amused. Sometimes he could see the humour in Mary's ingenuous conceit, and in the dogmatic assurance with which she uttered the most astounding opinions; but at others, when she waved aside superciliously a remark that did not square with her prejudices, or complacently denied a statement because she had never heard it before, he was irritated beyond all endurance. And it was nothing very outrageous he said, but merely some commonplace of science which all the world had accepted for twenty years. Mary, however, entrenched herself behind the impenetrable rock of her self-sufficiency.
"I'm not clever enough to argue with you," she said; "but I know I'm right; and I'm quite satisfied."
Generally she merely smiled.
"What nonsense you talk, Jamie! You don't really believe what you say."
"But, my dear Mary, it's a solemn fact. There's no possibility of doubting it. It's a truism."
Then with admirable self-command, remembering that James was still an invalid, she would pat his hand and say:
"Well, it doesn't matter. Of course, you're much cleverer than I am. It must be almost time for your beef-tea."
James sank back, baffled. Mary's ignorance was an impenetrable cuirass; she would not try to understand, she could not even realise that she might possibly be mistaken. Quite seriously she thought that what she ignored could be hardly worth knowing. People talk of the advance of education; there may be a little among the lower classes, but it is inconceivable that the English gentry can ever have been more illiterate than they are now. Throughout the country, in the comfortable villa or in the stately mansion, you will find as much prejudice and superstition in the drawing-room as in the kitchen; and you will find the masters less receptive of new ideas than their servants; and into the bargain, presumptuously satisfied with their own nescience.
James saw that the only way to deal with Mary and with his people was to give in to all their prejudices. He let them talk, and held his tongue. He shut himself off from them, recognising that there was, and could be, no bond between them. They were strangers to him; their ways of looking at every detail of life were different from his; they had not an interest, not a thought, in common.... The preparations for the marriage went on.
One day Mary decided that it was her duty to speak with James about his religion. Some of his remarks had made her a little uneasy, and he was quite strong enough now to be seriously dealt with.
"Tell me, Jamie," she said, in reply to an observation which she was pleased to consider flippant, "you do believe in God, don't you?"
But James had learnt his lesson well.
"My dear, that seems to me a private affair of my own."
"Are you ashamed to say?" she asked, gravely.
"No; but I don't see the advantage of discussing the matter."
"I think you ought to tell me as I'm going to be your wife. I shouldn't like you to be an atheist."
"Atheism is exploded, Mary. Only very ignorant persons are certain of what they cannot possibly know."
"Then I don't see why you should be afraid to tell me."
"I'm not; only I think you have no right to ask. We both think that in marriage each should leave the other perfect freedom. I used to imagine the ideal was that married folk should not have a thought, nor an idea apart; but that is all rot. The best thing is evidently for each to go his own way, and respect the privacy of the other. Complete trust entails complete liberty."
"I think that is certainly the noblest way of looking at marriage."
"You may be quite sure I shall not intrude upon your privacy, Mary."
"I'm sorry I asked you any question. I suppose it's no business of mine."
James returned to his book; he had fallen into the habit again of reading incessantly, finding therein his only release from the daily affairs of life; but when Mary left him, he let his novel drop and began to think. He was bitterly amused at what he had said. The parrot words which he had so often heard on Mary's lips sounded strangely on his own. He understood now why the view of matrimony had become prevalent that it was an institution in which two casual persons lived together, for the support of one and the material comfort of the other. Without love it was the most natural thing that husband and wife should seek all manner of protection from each other; with love none was needed. It harmonised well with the paradox that a marriage of passion was rather indecent, while lukewarm affection and paltry motives of convenience were elevating and noble.
Poor Mary! James knew that she loved him with all her soul, such as it was (a delicate conscience and a collection of principles are not enough to make a great lover), and again he acknowledged to himself that he could give her only friendship. It had been but an ephemeral tenderness which drew him to her for the second time, due to weakness of body and to gratitude. If he ever thought it was love, he knew by now that he had been mistaken. Still, what did it matter? He supposed they would get along very well--as well as most people; better even than if they adored one another; for passion is not conducive to an even life. Fortunately she was cold and reserved, little given to demonstrative affection; she made few demands upon him, and occupied with her work in the parish and the collection of her trousseau, was content that he should remain with his books.
The day fixed upon for the marriage came nearer.
But at last James was seized with a wild revolt. His father was sitting by him.
"Mary's wedding-dress is nearly ready," he said, suddenly.
"So soon?" cried James, his heart sinking.
"She's afraid that something may happen at the last moment, and it won't be finished in time."
"What could happen?"
"Oh, I mean something at the dressmaker's!"
"Is that all? I imagine there's little danger."
There was a pause, broken again by the Colonel.
"I'm so glad you're going to be happily married, Jamie."
His son did not answer.
"But man is never satisfied. I used to think that when I got you spliced, I should have nothing else to wish for; but now I'm beginning to want little grandsons to rock upon my knees."
Jamie's face grew dark.
"We should never be able to afford children."
"But they come if one wants them or not, and I shall be able to increase your allowance a little, you know. I don't want you to go short of anything."
James said nothing, but he thought: "If I had children by her, I should hate them." And then with sudden dismay, losing all the artificial indifference of the last week, he rebelled passionately against his fate. "Oh, I hate and loathe her!"
He felt he could no longer continue the pretence he had been making--for it was all pretence. The effort to be loving and affectionate was torture, so that all his nerves seemed to vibrate with exasperation. Sometimes he had to clench his hands in order to keep himself under restraint. He was acting all the time. James asked himself what madness blinded Mary that she did not see? He remembered how easily speech had come in the old days when they were boy and girl together; they could pass hours side by side, without a thought of time, talking of little insignificant things, silent often, and always happy. But now he racked his brain for topics of conversation, and the slightest pause seemed irksome and unnatural. He was sometimes bored to death, savagely, cruelly; so that he was obliged to leave Mary for fear that he would say bitter and horrible things. Without his books he would have gone mad. She must be blind not to see. Then he thought of their married life. How long would it last? The years stretched themselves out endlessly, passing one after another in dreary monotony. Could they possibly be happy? Sooner or later Mary would learn how little he cared for her, and what agony must she suffer then! But it was inevitable. Now, whatever happened, he could not draw back; it was too late for explanations. Would love come? He felt it impossible; he felt, rather, that the physical repulsion which vainly he tried to crush would increase till he abhorred the very sight of his wife.
Passionately he cried out against Fate because he had escaped death so often. The gods played with him as a cat plays with a mouse. He had been through dangers innumerable; twice he had lain on the very threshold of eternal night, and twice he had been snatched back. Far rather would he have died the soldier's death, gallantly, than live on to this humiliation and despair. A friendly bullet could have saved him many difficulties and much unhappiness. And why had he recovered from the fever? What an irony it was that Mary should claim gratitude for doing him the greatest possible disservice!
"I can't help it," he cried; "I loathe her!"
The strain upon him was becoming intolerable. James felt that he could not much longer conceal the anguish which was destroying him. But what was to be done? Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!
James held his head in his hands, cursing his pitiful weakness. Why did he not realise, in his convalescence, that it was but a passing emotion which endeared Mary to him? He had been so anxious to love her, so eager to give happiness to all concerned, that he had welcomed the least sign of affection; but he knew what love was, and there could be no excuse. He should have had the courage to resist his gratitude.
"Why should I sacrifice myself?" he cried. "My life is as valuable as theirs. Why should it be always I from whom sacrifice is demanded?"
But it was no use rebelling. Mary's claims were too strong, and if he lived he must satisfy them. Yet some respite he could not do without; away from Primpton he might regain his calm. James hated London, but even that would be better than the horrible oppression, the constraint he was forced to put upon himself.
He walked up and down the garden for a few minutes to calm down, and went in to his mother. He spoke as naturally as he could.
"Father tells me that Mary's wedding-dress is nearly ready."
"Yes; it's a little early. But it's well to be on the safe side."
"It's just occurred to me that I can hardly be married in rags. I think I had better go up to town for a few days to get some things."
"Must you do that?"
"I think so. And there's a lot I want to do."
"Oh, well, I daresay Mary won't mind, if you don't stay too long. But you must take care not to tire yourself."
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