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venture to look again at Roger. I think that his eyes have never left
me. They seem to be expecting me to speak, but, as I still remain
silent, he turns at length away, and also gently removes his hands from
my shoulders. We stand apart.

"Well, Nancy," he says, sighing again, as if from the bottom of his
soul, "my poor child, it is no use talking about it. I can never be your
father now."

"And a very good thing too!" rejoin I, with a dogged stoutness. "I do
not see what I want with _two_ fathers; I have always found _one_ amply
enough - quite as much as I could manage, in fact."

He seems hardly to be listening to me. He has dropped his eyes on the
ground, and is speaking more to himself than to me.

"Husband and wife we are!" he says, with a slow depression of tone,
"and, as long as God's and man's laws stand, husband and wife we must

"You are not very polite," I cry, with an indignant lump rising in my
throat; "you speak as if you were _sorry_ for it - _are_ you?"

He lifts his eyes again, and again their keen search investigates the
depths of my soul; but no human eye can rightly read the secrets of any
other human spirit; they find what they expect to find, not what is
there. Clear and cuttingly keen as they are, Roger's eyes do not read my
soul aright.

"Are _you_, Nancy?"

"If _you_ are, I am," I reply, with a half-smothered sob.

He makes no rejoinder, and we begin again to walk along homeward, but
slowly this time.

"We have made a mistake, perhaps," he says, presently, still speaking
with the same slow and ruminating sadness in his tone. "The inscrutable
God alone knows why He permits his creatures to mar all their seventy
years by one short false step - yes - a _mistake_!"

(Ah me! ah me! I always mistrusted those laurestines! They sent me back
my brother churlish and embittered, but oh! that in my steadfast Roger
they should have worked such a sudden deadly change!)

"Is it more a mistake," I cry, bursting out into irrepressible anger,
"than it was two hours ago, when I left you at that gate? You did not
seem to think it a mistake _then_ - at least you hid it very well, if you
did" - (then going on quickly, seeing that he is about to interrupt
me) - "have you been _comparing notes_, pray? Has _she_ found it a
mistake, too?"

"Yes, _that_ she has! Poor soul! God help her!" he answers,

Something in the pity of his tone jars frightfully on my strung nerves.

"If God has to help all the poor souls who have made mistakes, He will
have his hands full!" I retort, bitterly.

Another silence. We are drawing near the pleasure-grounds - the great
rhododendron belt that shelters the shrubbery from the east wind.

"Nancy," says Roger, again stopping, and facing me too. This time he
does not put his hands on my shoulders; the melancholy is still in his
eyes, but there is no longer any harshness. They repossess their natural
kindly benignity. "Though it is perhaps impossible that there should be
between us that passionate love that there might be between people that
are nearer each other in age - more fitly mated - yet there is no reason
why we should not _like_ each other very heartily, is there, dear? why
there should not be between us absolute confidence, perfect
frankness - that is the great thing, is not it?"

He is looking with such intense wistfulness at me, that I turn away. Why
should not there be passionate love between us? Who is there but himself
to hinder it? So I make no answer.

"I dare say," he says, taking my right hand, and holding it with a cool
and kindly clasp, "that you think it difficult - next door to
impossible - for two people, one at the outset, one almost on the
confines of life, to enter very understandingly into each other's
interests! No doubt the thought that I - being so much ahead of you in
years" - (sighing again heavily) - "cannot see with your eyes, or look at
things from your stand-point - would make it harder for you to come to me
in your troubles; but indeed, dear, if you believe me, I will _try_,
and, as we are to spend our lives together, I think it would be better,
would not it?"

He speaks with a deprecating humility, an almost imploring gentleness,
but I am so thoroughly upset by the astounding change that has come over
the tone of his talk - by the clouds that have suddenly darkened the
morning sunshine of my horizon - that I cannot answer him in the same

"Perhaps we shall not have to spend all our lives together!" I say,
with a harsh laugh. "Cheer up! One of us may _die_! who knows?"

After that we neither of us say any thing till we reach the house.


"Yea, by God's rood, I trusted you too well!"

In the hall we part without a word, and I, spiritlessly, mount the
staircase alone. How I flew down it this morning, three steps at a time,
and had some ado to hinder myself from sliding down the banisters, as we
have all often, with dangerous joy, done at home! Now I crawl up, like
some sickly old person. When I reach my bedroom, I throw myself into the
first chair, and lie in it -

"... quiet as any water-sodden log
Stayed in the wandering warble of a brook."

I do not attempt to take off my hat and jacket. Of what use is it to
take them off more than to leave them on, or to leave them on more than
to take them off? Of what use is _any thing_, pray? What a weary round
life is! what a silly circle of unfortunate repetitions! eating only to
be hungry again; waking only to sleep; sleeping only to wake!

At first I am too inert even to think, even to lift my hand to protect
my cheek from Vick's muddy paws, who, annoyed at my evident inattention
to her presence, is sitting on my lap, making little impatient
_clawings_ at my defenseless countenance. But gradually on the river of
recollection all the incidents of the morning flow through my mind. In
more startling relief than ever, the astounding change in Roger, wrought
by those ill-starred two hours, stands out. Is it possible that I may
have been attributing it to a wrong cause? Doubtless, the first
interview with the woman he had loved, and who had thrown him over
(by-the-by, how forgiving men are!) - yes, the first, probably, since
they had stood in the relation of betrothed people to each other - must
have been full of pain. Doubtless, the contrast between the crude
gawkiness of the raw girl he has drifted into marrying - for I suppose it
was more accident than any thing else - with the mature and subtile
grace, the fine and low-voiced sweetness of the woman whom his whole
heart and soul and taste chose and approved, must have struck him with
keen force. I expected _that_: it would not have taken me by surprise.
If he had emerged from among the laurestines, depressed, and vainly
struggling for a factitious cheerfulness, I think I could have
understood it. I think I could have borne with it, could have tried
meekly to steal back into his heart again, to win him back, in despite
of ignorance, gawkiness, and all other my drawbacks, by force of sheer

But the change was surely too abrupt to be accounted for on this
hypothesis. Would _Roger_, my pattern of courtesy - Roger, who shrinks
from hurting the meanest beggar's feelings - would he, in such plain
terms, have deplored and wished undone our marriage, if it were only
suffering to _himself_ that it had entailed? Has his unselfish chivalry
gone the way of Algy's brotherly love? Impossible! the more I think of
it, the more unlikely it seems - the more certain it appears to me that I
must look elsewhere for the cause of the alteration that has so heavily
darkened my day.

I have risen, and am walking quickly up and down. I have shaken off my
stolid apathy, or, rather, it has fallen off of itself. Can she have
told him any ill tales of me? any thing to my disadvantage? Instantly
the thought of Musgrave - the black and heavy thought that is never far
from the portals of my mind - darts across me, and, at the same instant,
like a flash of lightning, the recollection of my meeting her on the
fatal evening, just as (with tear-stained, swollen face) I had parted
from Frank - of the alert and lively interest in her eyes, as she bowed
and smiled to me, flames with sudden illumination into my soul. Still I
can hardly credit it. It would, no doubt, be pleasant to her to sow
dissension between us, but would even _she_ dare to carry ill tales of a
wife to a husband? And even supposing that she had, would he attach so
much importance to my being seen with wet cheeks? I, who cry so
easily - I, who wept myself nearly blind when Jacky caught his leg in the
snare? If he thinks so much of that part of the tale, _what would he
think of the rest_?

As I make this reflection I shudder, and again congratulate myself on my
silence. For beyond our parting, and my tears, it is _impossible_ that
she can have told him aught.

Men are not prone to publish their own discomfitures; even _I_ know that
much. I exonerate Mr. Musgrave from all share in making it known - and
have the mossed tree-trunks lips? or the loud brook an articulate
tongue? Thank God! thank God! _no!_ Nature never blabs. With infinite
composure, with a most calm smile she _listens_, but she never tells

A little reassured by this thought, I resolve to remain in doubt no
longer than I can help, but to ascertain, if necessary, by direct
inquiry, whether my suspicions are correct. This determination is no
sooner come to than it puts fresh life and energy into my limbs. I take
off my hat and jacket, smooth my hair, and prepare with some alacrity
for luncheon.

It is evening, however, before I have an opportunity of putting my
resolve in practice. At luncheon, there are the servants; all afternoon,
Roger is closeted with his agent: before we set off this morning, he
never mentioned the agent: he never figured at all in our day's plan - (I
imagined that he was to be kept till to-morrow); and at dinner there are
the servants again. Thank God, they are gone now! We are alone, Roger
and I. We are sitting in my boudoir, as in my day-dreams, before his
return, I had pictured us; but, alas! where is caressing proximity which
figured in all my visions? where is the stool on which I was to sit at
his feet, with head confidently leaned on his arm? As it happens, Vick
is sitting on the stool, and we occupy two arm-chairs, at civil distance
from each other, much as if we had been married sixty years, and had
hated each other for fifty-nine of them. I am idly fiddle-faddling with
a piece of work, and Roger - is it possible? - is stretching out his hand
toward a book.

"You do not mean to say that you are going to _read_?" I say, in a tone
of sharp vexation.

He lays it down again.

"If you had rather talk, I will not."

"I am afraid," say I, with a sour laugh, "that you have not kept much
conversation _for home use_! I suppose you exhausted it all, this
morning, at Laurel Cottage!"

He passes his hand slowly across his forehead.

"Perhaps! - I do not think I am in a very talking vein."

"By-the-by," say I, my heart beating thick, and with a hurry and tremor
in my voice, as I approach the desired yet dreaded theme, "you have
never told me what it was, besides Mr. Huntley's debts, that you talked
of this morning! - you owned that you did not talk of business _quite_
all the time!"

"Did I?"

He has forgotten his book now; across the flame of the candles, he is
looking full and steadily at me.

"When I asked you, you said it was not about old times? - of
course - " (laughing acridly) - "I can imagine your becoming illimitably
diffuse about _them_, but you told me, that, 'No,' you did not mention

"I told truth."

"You also said," continue I, with my voice still trembling, and my
pulses throbbing, "that it was not _Algy_ that you were discussing! - if
_I_ had been in your place, I could, perhaps, have found a good deal to
say about _him_; but you told me that you never mentioned him."

"We did not."

"Then what _did_ you talk about?" I ask, in strong excitement; "it must
have been a very odd theme that you find such difficulty in repeating."

Still he is looking, with searching gravity, full in my face.

"Do you _really_ wish to know?"

I cannot meet his eyes: something in me makes me quail before them. I
turn mine away, but answer, stoutly:

"Yes, I _do_ wish. Why should I have asked, if I did not?"

Still he says nothing: still I feel, though I am not looking at him,
that his eyes are upon me.

"Was it - " say I, unable any longer to bear that dumb gaze, and
preferring to take the bull by the horns, and rush on my fate - "was it
any thing about _me_? has she been telling you any tales of - of - _me_?"

No answer! No sound but the clock, and Vick's heavy breathing, as she
peacefully snores on the footstool. I _cannot_ bear the suspense. Again
I lift my eyes, and look at him. Yes, I am right! the intense
anxiety - the overpowering emotion on his face tell me that I have
touched the right string.

"Are there - are there - are you aware that there are any tales that she
_could_ tell of you?"

Again I laugh harshly.

"Ha! ha! if we came to mutual anecdotes, I am not quite sure that I
might not have the best of it!"

"That is not the question," he replies, in a voice so exceedingly stern,
so absolutely different from any thing I have ever hitherto contemplated
as possible in my gentle, genial Roger, that again, to the depths of my
soul, I quail; how could I ever, in wildest dreams, have thought I
should dare to tell him? - "it is nothing to me what tales _you_ can tell
of _her_! - _she_ is not my wife! - what I wish to know - what I _will_
know, is, whether there is any thing that she _could_ say of you!"

For a moment, I do not answer. I cannot. A coward fear is grasping my
heart with its clammy hands. Then -

"_Could!_" say I, shrugging my shoulders, and feebly trying to laugh
derisively; "of course she could! it would be difficult to set a limit
to the powers of a lady of her imagination!"

"What do you mean?" he cries, quickly, and with what sounds like a sort
of hope in his voice; "have you any reason - any grounds for thinking her

I do not answer directly.

"It is true, then," I cry, with flashing eyes, and in a voice of great
and indignant anguish. "I have not been mistaken! I was right! Is it
possible that _you_, who, only this morning, warned me with such
severity against backbiting, have been calmly listening to scandalous
tales about me from a stranger?"

He does not interrupt me: he is listening eagerly, and that sort of hope
is still in his face.

"I _knew_ it would come, sooner or later," I continue, speaking
excitedly, and with intense bitterness, "sooner or later, I knew that it
would be a case of Algy over again! but I did not - did not think that it
would have been quite so soon! Great Heaven!" (smiting my hands sharply
together, and looking upward), "I _have_ fallen low! to think that I
should come to be discussed by _you_ with _her_!"

"I have _not_ discussed you with her," he answers, very solemnly, and
still looking at me with that profound and greedy eagerness in his eyes;
"with _no_ living soul would I discuss my wife - I should have hardly
thought I need tell you that! What I heard, I heard by accident. She - as I
believe, in all innocence of heart - referred to - the - the - circumstance,
taking it for granted that I knew it - that _you_ had told me of it, and
I - _I_ - " (raising his clinched right hand to emphasize his speech) - "I
take God to witness, I had no more idea to what she was alluding - as soon
as I understood - she must have thought me very dull - " (laughing
hoarsely) - "for it was a long time before I took it in - but as soon as I
understood to what manner of anecdote it was that she was referring - then,
_at once_, I bade her be silent! - not even with _her_, would I talk over
my wife!"

He stops. He has risen from his chair, and is now standing before me.
His breath comes quick and panting; and his face is not far from being
as white as mine.

"But what I have learned," he continues presently, in a low voice, that,
by a great effort, he succeeds in making calm and steady, "I cannot
again unlearn! I would not if I could! - I have no desire to live in a
fool's paradise! I tried hard this morning - God knows what constraint I
had to put upon myself - to induce you to tell me of your own accord - to
_volunteer_ it - but you would not - you were _resolutely_ silent. Why
were you? Why were you?" (breaking off with an uncontrollable emotion).
"I should not have been hard upon you - I should have made allowances.
God knows we all need it!"

I sit listening in a stony silence: every bit of me seems turned into
cold rock.

"But _now_," he says, regathering his composure, and speaking with a
resolute, stern quiet; "I have no other resource - you have left me
none - but to come to you, and ask point-blank, is this true, or is it

For a moment, my throat seems absolutely stopped up, choked; there seems
no passage for my voice, through its dry, parched gates. Then at length
I speak faintly: "Is _what_ true? is what false? I suppose you will not
expect me to deny it, before I know what it is?"

He does not at once answer. He takes a turn once or twice up and down
the silent room, in strong endeavor to overcome and keep down his
agitation, then he returns and speaks; with a face paler, indeed, than I
could have imagined any thing so bronzed could be; graver, more austere
than I ever thought I should see it, but still without bluster or
hectoring violence.

"Is it true, then?" he says, speaking in a very low key. "Great God!
that I should have to put such a question to my wife; that one evening,
about a week ago, on the very day, indeed, that the news of my intended
return arrived, you were seen parting with - with - _Musgrave_" (he seems
to have an intense difficulty in pronouncing the name) "at or after
nightfall, on the edge of Brindley Wood, _he_ in a state of the most
evident and extreme agitation, and _you_ in floods of tears! - is it
true, or is it false? - for God's sake, speak quickly!"

But I cannot comply with his request. I am _gasping_. His eyes are upon
me, and, at every second's delay, they gather additional sternness. Oh,
how awful they are in their just wrath! When was father, in his worst
and most thunderous storms, half so dreadful? half so awe-inspiring?

"What sort of an interview could it have been to which there was such a
close?" he says, as if making the reflection more to himself than to me;
"speak! is it true?"

I can no longer defer my answer. One thing or another I must say: both
eyes and lips imperatively demand it. Twice, nay _thrice_ I
struggle - struggle mightily to speak, and speak well and truly, and
twice, nay, three times, that base fear strangles my words. Then, at
length - O friends! do not be any harder upon me than you can help, for
indeed, _indeed_ I have paid sorely for it, and it is the first lie that
ever I told; then, at length, with a face as wan as the ashes of a dead
fire - with trembling lips, and a faint, scarcely audible voice, I say,
"No, it is not true!"

"_Not true?_" he echoes, catching up my words quickly; but in his voice
is none of the relief, the restored amenity that I had looked for, and
for the hope of which I have perjured myself; equally in voice and face,
there is only a deep and astonished anger.

"_Not true!_ - you mean to say that it is _false_!"

"Yes, false!" I repeat in a sickly whisper. Oh, why, if I _must_ lie, do
not I do it with a bold and voluble assurance? whom would my starved
pinched falsehood deceive?

"You mean to say," speaking with irrepressible excitement, while the
wrathful light gathers and grows intenser in the gray depths of his
eyes, "that this - this _interview_ never took place? that it is all a
delusion; a mistake?"


I repeat it mechanically now. Having gone thus far, I must go on, but I
feel giddy and sick, and my hands grasp the arms of my chair. I feel as
if I should fall out of it if they did not.

"You are _sure_?" speaking with a heavy emphasis, and looking
persistently at me, while the anger of his eyes is dashed and crossed by
a miserable entreaty. Ah! if they had had that look at first, I could
have told him. "Are you _sure_?" he repeats, and I, driven by the fates
to my destruction, while God hides his face from me, and the devil
pushes me on, answer hazily, "Yes, quite sure!"

Then he asks me no more questions; he turns and slowly leaves the room,
and I know that I have lied in vain!


And thus I, ingenious architect of my own ruin, build up the barrier of
a lie between myself and Roger. It is a barrier that hourly grows
higher, more impassable. As the days go by, I say to myself in
heart-sickness, that I shall never now cross it - never see it leveled
with the earth. Even when we too are dead it will still rise between us
in the other world; if - as all the nations have agreed to say - there
_be_ another. For my part, I think at this time that, if there is any
chance of its bearing aught of resemblance to this present world, I had
far fainer there were none.

With all due deference to Shakespeare - and I suppose that even the one
supreme genius of all time must, in his day, have made a mistake or
two - I have but faint belief in the "sweet uses of adversity." I think
that they are about as mythical as the jewels in the toad's ugly skull,
to which he likened them. It is in _prosperity_ that one looks up, with
leaping heart and clear eyes, and through the clouds see God sitting
throned in light. In adversity one sees nothing but one's own dunghill
and boils.

At least such has been my experience. I think I could have borne it
better if I had not looked forward to his return so much - if he had been
an austere and bitter tyrant, to _whose coming_ I had looked with dread,
I could have braced my nerves and pulled myself together, to face with
some stoutness the hourly trials of life. But when one has counted the
days, hours, and moments, till some high festival, and, when it comes,
it turns out a drear, black funeral, one cannot meet the changed
circumstances with any great fortitude.

It is the horrible contrast between my dreams and their realization that
gives the keenest poignancy to my pangs.

To his return I had referred the smoothing of all my difficulties, the
clearing up of all my doubts, the sweeping of all clouds from my sky;
and now he is back! and, oh, how far, _far_ gloomier than ever is my
weather! What a sullen leaden sky overhangs me!

I never tell him about Algy after all! I do not often laugh now; but I
_did_ laugh loudly and long the other day, although I was quite alone,
when I thought of my wily purpose of setting Roger on his guard against
Mrs. Huntley's little sugared unveracities.

No, I never tell him about Algy! Why should I? it would be wasted
breath - spent words. He would not believe me. In the more important case
has not he taken her word in preference to mine? Would not he in _this_
too? For I know that he knows, as well as I know it myself, that in that
matter I lied.

Sometimes, when I am by myself, a mighty yearning - a most constraining
longing seizes me to go to him - fall at his feet, and tell him the truth
even yet. After all, God knows that I have no ugly fault to confess to
him - no infidelity even of thought. But as soon as I am in his presence
the desire fades; or at least the power to put it in practice melts
away. For he never gives me an opening. After that first evening never
does he draw nigh the subject: never once is the detested name of
Musgrave mentioned between us. If he had been one most dear to us both
and had died untimely, we could not avoid with more sacred care any
allusion to him. And, even if, by doing infinite violence to myself, I
could bring myself to overcome the painful steepness of the hill of
difficulty that lies between me and the subject, and tell the tardy
truth, to what use, pray? Having once owned that I had lied, could I
resent any statement of mine being taken with distrust? Would he believe
me? Not he! He would say, "If you were as innocent as you say, why did
you _lie_? If you were innocent, what had you to fear?" So I hold my
peace. And, as the days go, and the winter wanes, it seems to me that I
can plainly see, with no uncertain or doubtful eyes, Roger's love wane

After all, why should I wonder? I may be sorry, for who ever saw gladly
love - the one all-good thing on this earth, most of whose good things
are adulterated and dirt-smirched - who ever saw it _gladly_ slip away

Online LibraryRhoda BroughtonNancy → online text (page 21 of 29)