Six years from the day Jessie Loring laid her bleeding heart on the marriage altar had passed. For over three years of that time she had not stepped beyond the threshold of her aunt's dwelling, and only at rare intervals was she seen by visitors. She had not led an idle life, however; else would her days long ere this have been numbered. To her aunt and cousins she had, from the day of her return, devoted herself, in all things wherein she could aid, counsel, minister, or sustain; and that with so much of patient cheerfulness, and loving self-devotion, that she had become endeared to them beyond any former attachment. There was an odor of goodness about her life that made her presence an incentive to right action.
Long before this period, Mrs. Loring had ceased all efforts to lead Jessie out of her self-imposed seclusion.
"Not yet, dear aunt! Not yet," was the invariable answer.
The day on which she received formal notice that her husband had applied for a divorce, she shut herself up in her room, and did not leave it, nor hold communion with any one, until the next morning. Then, with the exception of a wearied look, as if she had not slept well, and a shade of sadness about her lips, no change was discernible. When the decree, annulling the marriage between her and Dexter, was placed in her hands, she seemed bewildered for a time, as if she found it almost impossible to realize her new position.
"I congratulate you, Jessie Loring!" said her aunt, speaking from her external view of the case. "You are free again. Free as the wind!"
"This does not place me where I was," Jessie replied.
"Why not? The law has cancelled your marriage!" said Mrs. Loring. "You stand in your old relation to the world."
"But not to myself," Jessie answered with a deep sigh; and leaving her aunt, she went away to her little chamber, there to sit in solemn debate over this new aspect of affairs in her troubled life.
No--no. She did not stand in her old relation to herself. She was not a maiden with lips free from the guile of a false marriage promise; but a divorced wife. A thing questionably recognized, both in human opinion and divine law. Deeply and solemnly did this conviction weigh upon her thoughts. View the case in any of the lights which shone into her mind, she could not discover an aspect that gave her real comfort. It is true she was free from all legal obligations to her former husband, and that was something gained. But what of that husband's position under the literal reading of the divine law? No doubt he contemplated marriage. But could he marry, conscience clear? Had not her false vows cursed both their lives?--imposed on each almost impossible necessities?
Such were the questions that thrust themselves upon her, and clamored for solution.
She had not solved them when the intelligence came of Mr. Dexter's marriage in England.
"I have news that will surprise you," said Mrs. Loring, coming into the sitting-room where Jessie was at work on a piece of embroidery.
"What is it?" she asked, looking up almost with a start, for something in her aunt's manner told her that she had a personal interest in the news.
"Mr. Dexter is married!"
Instantly a pallor overspread Jessie's face.
"Married to an English lady," said Mrs. Loring.
Jessie looked at her aunt for a little while, but without a remark. She then turned her eyes again upon her embroidery, lifting it close to her face. But her hand trembled so that she could not take a stitch.
"I hope he's satisfied now," said Mrs. Loring. "He's married an heiress--so the story goes; and is going to reside with her in England. I'm glad of that any how. It might not be so pleasant for you to meet them--sensitive thing that you are! But it wouldn't trouble me. I could look them both in the face and not blink. Much joy may he have with his English bride! Bless me, child, how you do tremble!" she added, as she noticed the fingers of her niece trying in vain to direct the needle she held upon the face of the embroidery. "It's nothing more than you had to expect. And, besides, what is Leon Dexter to you now? Only as another man?"
Jessie arose without speaking, and kissing her aunt in token of love, passed quickly from the room.
"Dear! dear! what a strange child it is!" said Aunt Loring, as she wiped off a tear which had fallen from Jessie's eyes upon her cheek. "Just like her mother for all the world in some things"--the last part of the sentence was in a qualifying tone--"though," she went on, "her mother hadn't anything like her trials to endure. Oh, that Dexter! if I only had my will of him!"
And Aunt Loring, in her rising indignation, actually clenched her hand and shook it in the air.
"It has come to this at last," said Jessie as soon as she had gained the sanctuary of her little chamber, where she could think without interruption. "And I knew it must come; but oh, how I have dreaded the event! Is he innocent in the sight of heaven? Ah, if I could only have that question answered in the affirmative, a crushing weight would be lifted from my soul. If he is not innocent, the stain of his guilt rests upon my garments! He is not alone responsible. Who can tell the consequences of a single false step in life?"
From a small hanging shelf she took a Bible, and opening to a marked page, read over three or four verses with earnest attention.
"I can see no other meaning," she said with a painful sigh, closing the book and restoring it to its place on the shelf. It was all in vain that Jessie Loring sought for light and comfort in this direction. They were not found. When she joined her aunt, some hours afterwards, her face had not regained its former placidity.
"Well, dear," said Mrs. Loring, speaking in what sounded to the ear of her niece a light tone, "have you got it all right with yourself?"
Jessie smiled faintly, and merely answered--
"It will take time. But I trust that all will come out truly adjusted in the end."
She had never ventured to bring to her aunt's very external judgment the real questions that troubled her. Mrs. Loring's prompt way of sweeping aside these cobwebs of the brain, as she called the finer scruples of conscience, could not satisfy her yearning desire for light.
"Yes; time works wonders. He is the great restorer. But why not see clearly at once; and not wait in suffering for time's slow movements? I am a wiser philosopher than you are, Jessie; and try to gain from the present all that it has to give."
"Some hearts require a severer discipline than others," said Jessie. "And mine, I think, is one of them."
"All that is sickly sentiment, my dear child! as I have said to you a hundred times. It is not shadow, but sunshine that your heart wants--not discipline, but consolation--not doubt, but hope. You are as untrue to yourself as the old anchorites. These self-inflicted stripes are horrible to think of, for the pain is not salutary, but only increases the morbid states of mind that ever demand new flagellations."
"We are differently made, Aunt Phoebe," was the quiet answer.
"No, we are not, but we make ourselves different," replied Mrs. Loring a little hastily.
"The world would be a very dead-level affair, if we were all made alike," said Jessie, forcing a smile, and assuming a lighter air, in order to lead her aunt's mind away from the thought of her as too painfully disturbed by the announcement of Mr. Dexter's marriage. And she was successful. The subject was changed to one of a less embarrassing character. And this was all of the inner life of Jessie Loring that showed itself on the surface.
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