AND what of Paul Hendrickson during these years of isolation, in which no intelligence could be gained of Jessie, beyond vague rumors? For a time, he secluded himself. Then he returned to a few of the old social circles, not much changed to the common eye. His countenance was a little graver; his voice a little lower; his manner a trifle more subdued. But he was a cheerful, intelligent companion, and always a welcome guest.
To no one, not even to his old friend, Mrs. Denison, did he speak of Mrs. Dexter. What right had he to speak of her? She was still the lawful wife of another man, though separated from him by her own act. But not to think of her was as impossible as not to think at all--not to gaze upon her image as impossible as to extinguish the inner vision. She was always by his side, in spirit; her voice always in his ears; her dear face always before him. "The cup is dashed to pieces at my feet, and the precious wine spilled!" How many, many, many times, each day, did he hear these words uttered, always in that sad, half-desponding voice that first brought them to his ears; and they kept hope in the future alive.
The separation which had taken place Hendrickson regarded as one step in the right direction. When the application for a divorce was made, he hailed it with a degree of inward satisfaction that a little startled himself. "It is another step in the right direction," he said, on the instant's impulse.
Reflection a little sobered him. "Even if the divorce is granted, what will be her views of the matter?"
There came no satisfactory answer to this query.
A thick curtain still veiled the future. Many doubts troubled him.
Next, in the order of events, came the decision by which the marriage contract between Dexter and his wife was annulled. On the evening of the same day on which the court granted the petitioner's prayer, Hendrickson called upon Mrs. Denison. She saw the moment he came in that he was excited about something.
"Have you heard the news?" he inquired.
"What news?" Mrs. Denison looked at him curiously.
"Leon Dexter has obtained a divorce."
"Yes. And so that long agony is over! She is free again."
Hendrickson was not able to control the intense excitement he felt.
Mrs. Denison looked at him soberly and with glances of inquiry.
"You understand me, I suppose?"
"Perhaps I do, perhaps not," she answered.
"Mrs. Denison," said the young man, with increasing excitement, "I need scarcely say to you that my heart has never swerved from its first idolatry. To love Jessie Loring was an instinct of my nature--therefore, to love her once was to love her forever. You know how cruelly circumstances came with their impassable barriers. They were only barriers, and destroyed nothing. As brightly as ever burned the fires--as ardently as ever went forth love's strong impulses with every heart-beat. And her heart remained true to mine as ever was needle to the pole."
"That is a bold assertion, Paul," said Mrs. Denison, "and one that it pains me to hear you make."
"It is true; but why does it give you pain?" he asked.
"Because it intimates the existence of an understanding between you and Mrs. Dexter, and looks to the confirmation of rumors that I have always considered as without a shadow of foundation."
"My name has never been mentioned in connection with hers."
"It is true."
"I never heard it."
"Nor I but once."
"What was said?"
"That you were the individual against whom Mr. Dexter's jealousy was excited, and that your clandestine meetings with his wife led to the separation."
"I had believed," said Hendrickson, after a pause, and in a voice that showed a depression of feeling, "that busy rumor had never joined our names together. That it has done so, I deeply regret. No voluntary action of mine led to this result; and it was my opinion that Dexter had carefully avoided any mention of my name, even to his most intimate friends."
"I only heard the story once, and then gave it my emphatic denial," said Mrs. Denison.
"And yet it was true, I believe, though in a qualified sense. We did meet, not clandestinely, however, nor with design."
"But without a thought, much less a purpose of dishonor," said Mrs. Denison, almost severely.
"Without even a thought of dishonor," replied Hendrickson. "Both were incapable of that. She arrived at Newport when I was there. We met, suddenly and unexpectedly, face to face, and when off our guard. I read her heart, and she read mine, in lightning glimpses. The pages were shut instantly, and not opened again. We met once or twice after that, but as mere acquaintances, and I left on the day after she came, because I saw that the discipline was too severe for her, and that I was not only in an equivocal, but dangerous, if not dishonorable position. Dexter had his eyes on me all the while, and if I crossed his path suddenly he looked as if he would have destroyed me with a glance. The fearful illness, which came so near extinguishing the life of Mrs. Dexter, was, I have never doubted, in consequence of that meeting and circumstances springing directly therefrom. A friend of mine had a room adjoining theirs at Newport, and he once said to me, without imagining my interest in the case, that on the day before Mrs. Dexter's illness was known, he had heard her voice pitched to a higher key than usual, and had caught a few words that too clearly indicated a feeling of outrage for some perpetrated wrong. There was stern defiance also, he said, in her tones. He was pained at the circumstance, for he had met Mrs. Dexter frequently, he said, at Newport, and was charmed with her fine intelligence and womanly attractions.
"Once after that we looked into each other's faces, and only once. And then, as before, we read the secret known only to ourselves--but without design. I was passing her residence--it was the first time I had permitted myself even to go into the neighborhood where she lived, since her return from Newport. Now something drew me that way, and yielding to the impulse, I took the street on which her dwelling stood, and ere a thought of honor checked my footsteps, was by her door. A single glance at one of the parlor windows gave me the vision of her pale face, so attenuated by sickness and suffering, that the sight filled me with instant pity, and fired my soul with a deeper love. What my countenance expressed I do not know. It must have betrayed my feelings, for I was off my guard. Her face was as the page of a book suddenly opened. I read it without losing the meaning of a word. There was a painful sequel to this. The husband of Mrs. Dexter, as if he had started from the ground, confronted me on the instant. Which way he came--whether he had followed me, or advanced by an opposite direction, I know not. But there he stood, and his flashing eyes read both of our unveiled faces. The expression of his countenance was almost fiendish.
"I passed on, without pause or start. Nothing more than the answering glances he had seen was betrayed. But the consequences were final. It was on that day that Mrs. Dexter left her husband, never again to hold with him any communication. I have scarcely dared permit myself to imagine what transpired on that occasion. The outrage on his part must have been extreme, or the desperate alternative of abandonment would never have been taken by such a woman.
"There, my good friend and aforetime counsellor," added Hendrickson, "you have the unvarnished story. A stern necessity drew around each of us bands of iron. Yet we have been true to ourselves--and that means true to honor. But now the darker features of the case are changed. She is no longer the wife of Leon Dexter. The law has shattered every link of the accursed chain that held her in such a loathsome bondage."
He paused, for the expression of Mrs. Denison's countenance was not by any means satisfactory.
"Right, so far," said Mrs. Denison. "I cannot see that either was guilty of wrong, or even, imprudence. But I am afraid, Paul, that you are springing to conclusions with too bold a leap."
"Do not say that, Mrs. Denison."
He spoke quickly, and with a suddenly shadowed face.
"Your meaning is very plain," was answered. "It is this. A divorce having been granted to the prayer of Mr. Dexter, his wife is now free to marry again."
"Yes, that is my meaning," said Hendrickson, looking steadily into the face of Mrs. Denison. She merely shook her head in a grave, quiet way.
Hendrickson drew a long breath, then compressed his lips--but still looked into the face of his friend.
"There are impediments yet in the way," said Mrs. Denison.
"I know what you think. The Divine law is superior to all human enactments."
"Is it not so, Paul?"
"If I was certain as to the Divine law," said Hendrickson.
"The record is very explicit."
"Read in the simple letter, I grant that it is. But"--
"Paul! It grieves me to throw an icy chill over your ardent feelings," said Mrs. Denison, interrupting him. "But you may rest well assured of one thing: Jessie Loring, though no longer Mrs. Dexter, will not consider herself free to marry again."
"Do you know her views on this subject?" asked the young man, quickly.
"I think I know the woman. In the spirit of a martyr she took up her heavy cross, and bore it while she had strength to stand. The martyr spirit is not dead in her. It will not die while life remains. In the fierce ordeals through which she has passed, she has learned to endure; and now weak nature must yield, if in any case opposed to duty."
"Have you met her of late?" inquired the young man, curiously.
"No, but I talked with Mrs. De Lisle about her not long ago. Mrs. De Lisle is her most intimate friend, and knows her better, perhaps, than any other living person."
"And what does she say? Have you conversed with her on this subject?"
"No; but I have learned enough from her in regard to Jessie's views of life and duty, as well as states of religious feeling, to be justified in saying that she will not consider a court's decree of sufficient authority in the case. Alas! my young friend, I cannot see cause for gratulation so far as you are concerned. To her, the act of divorce (sic) way give a feeling of relief. A dead weight is stricken from her limbs. She can walk and breathe more freely; but she will not consider herself wholy untrammelled. Nor would I. Paul, Paul! the gulf that separates you is still impassable! But do not despair! Bear up bravely, manfully still. Six years of conflict, discipline, and stern obedience to duty have made you more worthy of a union with that pure spirit than you were when you saw her borne from your eager, outstretched arms. Her mind is ripening heavenward--let yours ripen in that direction also. You cannot mate with her, my friend, in the glorious hereafter, unless you are of equal purity. Oh, be patient, yet hopeful!"
Hendrickson had bowed his head, and was now sitting with his eyes upon the floor. He did not answer after Mrs. Denison ceased speaking, but still sat deeply musing.
"It is a hard saying!" He had raised his eyes to the face of his maternal friend. "A hard saying, and hard to bear. Oh, there is something so like the refinement of cruelty in these stern events which hold us apart, that I feel at times like questioning the laws that imposed such fearful restrictions. We are one in all the essentials of marriage, Mrs. Denison. Why are we thus sternly held apart?"
"It is one of the necessities of our fallen nature," Mrs. Denison replied, in her calm, yet earnest voice, "that spiritual virtues can only have birth in pain. We rise into the higher regions of heavenly purity only after the fires have tried us. Some natures, as you know, demand a severer discipline than others. Yours, I think, is one of them. Jessie's is another. But after the earthly dross of your souls is consumed, the pure gold will flow together, I trust, at the bottom of the same crucible. Wait, my friend; wait longer. The time is not yet."
A sadder man than when he came, did Mr. Hendrickson leave the house of Mrs. Denison on that day. She had failed to counsel him according to his wishes; but her words, though they had not carried full conviction to his clouded understanding, had shown him a goal still far in advance, towards which all of true manhood in him felt the impulse to struggle.
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