Mr. Norval: It is now four weeks since your accident. I have made inquiry of your physician whether news or business communications, however important, brought to your attention, would be detrimental to you, cause an accession of feverish symptoms or otherwise harm you. He assures me, On the contrary, he is sure you have not been for years so free from disease of any sort, with the sole exception of the broken bones, as now. This being so, I venture to approach you upon a subject which I doubt not you are quite as willing to have definitely arranged, and at once, as myself. I can say what I mean, and as I mean it, so much better on paper than in conversation--as I have so little self-possession, and am so readily put out in the matter of argument--that I have determined to write to you, thinking thus to be better able to make you understand and appreciate my reasons and motives, since you can read them when and how you choose.
I have been your wife three weeks. The horrible strangeness of these words is quite beyond me to compass; nevertheless, realize it or not, it is a fact. I am your wife--you, my husband. Why I am your wife I wish simply to rehearse here. Not that we do not both know why, but that we may know it in the same way. You, a handsome, cultivated man, whose dictum is considered law in the world of fashion in which you move and reign, with an assured social position, a handsome fortune, and a popularity that would have obtained for you the hand of any beautiful or wealthy woman whom you sought, have deliberately chosen to make me, a poor, plain, brown-faced little school-teacher, your wife. Not because you wanted me, not because you thought or cared about me, one way or the other, but simply because, in a time of urgent necessity, I was literally the only available woman near you. It chanced, from many points of view and by a chain of circumstances, that I was particularly available. So you married me. The reasons for such a sacrifice of yourself were--you had behaved badly, very badly, to a lady, compromising her name and causing a separation between herself and her husband. Within a few months, her husband having died, both herself and her father had determined to force you to make her reparation by marriage. Going to work very warily, they had taken an opportunity, after a very luxuriant and fast opera-supper, when you were excited by your surroundings and flushed by the wine you had been drinking, your head very light, your judgment very heavy, to draw from you a promise of marriage at the expiration of the year of mourning for her husband. As soon as you became aware of what you had done, you ignominiously fled, and after a Western tour were about to sail for Europe when this unfortunate accident overtook you. Your narrow escape from death, upon having been thrown from the carriage of a distinguished gentleman while driving with him behind a pair of celebrated racers, gave such publicity to your adventure that your amorata was at once aware of your whereabouts. The fear of this had taken possession of you as soon as you were able to think of anything, and the dread that she would follow and marry you while you lay helpless was made a certainty by this telegram from an intimate friend in New York, received the sixth day of your illness:
"It's all up with you, old fellow. The R. has heard you're fast with a broken leg, and she starts on Monday for Boston. Have the clergy ready, for it's marriage."
Then in your bitter need you remembered having talked with me in this hotel-parlor the very day of your accident. I had been a school-friend of your dead sister, and for her sake, on the rare occasions of your seeing me, you have always been polite and kindly patronized me. Now, lying helpless and unable to extricate yourself from your dilemma, you recalled the evident pleasure upon my foolish, tell-tale face at seeing you, the delight I had betrayed in the attention you had shown me, such as finding a seat at dinner for myself and my old lady friend, although some elegant and fashionable girls were waiting with ill-suppressed eagerness for your escort. Remembering all this, knowing as you did that I was poor, wearing out my life in teaching, in your sore need you suddenly thought, "I wonder if the girl wouldn't marry me? She'd make a good nurse, could look after my traps, and, though she is as ugly as sin and a nobody, wouldn't be the deuced disgrace to a fellow this Rollins woman will be. At all events, she'll save me from that fate if she takes up with my offer. It's a choice of evils, and this would be the least; and I'll try it." This, in plain, unadorned speech, was what you thought. Then you sent for me, began very pathetically to talk of your desolate state, your family all dead, and so on; that it had been sadly brought home to you how alone you were while lying sick, hour after hour, in this great hotel, with only your valet to attend to you and take an interest in your well-being; and that, day after day, as you lay thinking of your fate, my face had come before you, recalling tender memories of your lost and dearly-loved sister. Then you had remembered that as girl and boy we had been lovers, and really cared very much for each other. As you got this far toward your grande dénouement, something in my face, I suppose, made you realize that if you were to compass your ends with me it must be by honesty only. Then you blurted it all out--in, as I could not help thinking as I listened, as school-boyish and abashed a way as if you had--well, as if you had not been a consummate man of the world, rather noted for your aplomb.
It came across me (as I heard you in dumb amazement, with crimson face and trembling frame) that even the best polish of years' laying on will crack somewhere under very hard pressure. Well, you were honest and told me all, never pretending, as you had at first essayed to do, that it was out of any lingering regard for myself as your sister's friend that you sought me now, but simply on account of my availability. Had there been some bright young beauty with wealth and station at hand, no thought of me would ever have entered your mind: all this I understood at once from your half confessions--all this, I was glad to find, you had at least enough honor to let me know, although you risked what to you in your actual situation was very perilous--a refusal.
I asked until the next day to consider the matter--whether it would be better to take service with you, exchange for my boarding, clothing and incidental expenses the daily care of your comfort and pleasure, or earn my bread in the old wearing way. And the second day after that we were married. That is all. I believe that to be a simple statement of the facts in your case: I am right, am I not?
The day after our marriage your lady-love and her paternal ancestor came. At my own suggestion and with your eager consent I received them, and the result you know.
Now for my own reasons for this strange marriage. You are aware that my father was a professor of mathematics in various schools and colleges of the city where he lived, teaching in the school, among others, in which your sister and myself were pupils. I believe you know that when a young man he had eloped with and married one of his scholars, the daughter of a rich and proud family, who discarded her. For years she was a stranger to them, until her husband had won a name and handsome fortune for himself: then she was taken into favor again, her husband's distinction in the scientific world being supposed to add lustre to the family name. Alas for us! it was a favor that has cost us dear. I was their only child. When my sweet, pretty mother lay dying she left to me, her sixteen-year-old child, my dreamy, unworldly father as a legacy. "Take care of him: he knows no guile, and your uncles will wrong him if they can," she said. And they did, or one of them. Ere the bitter agony of my mother's death had enabled him to return to his duties, it was discovered that one of her brothers had forged his name and literally stripped him of everything.
Of course, then he went to work again to earn our daily bread--not with his old love or ability, but in an inert, feeble way that was pitiful to see. I think from the day my mother was buried he was dying. Some people, you know, die hard--some part with life lightly, as if it was a faded robe they shook off to don a brighter one. Others--my father was one, and I am like him--see one by one their trusts, their hopes, their loves die: then with a deathly throe sunder themselves from life. But pardon my digression.
When I was twenty my father died. Since then, spite of expressions of disapproval and offers of support from my mother's family, I have maintained myself by teaching in the schools where my father had been known, preferring to do without assistance so long as I had health. One of my uncles desired to take me into his family, and thus wipe out the wrong done my father by his brother, and my aunts proffered me an income out of their private means. I mention this to do them every justice, but I think even a man of fashion like yourself will acknowledge the impossibility of my accepting, while I could avoid it, a life of dependence. I could not accept favors from those who had treated my dear parents unkindly; so I have e'en gone my own way for these last ten years, and led a not unhappy life, if a busy and rather wearing one.
My gay cousins, all of whom you know well--the Wilber girls, Leta and Jennie, pretty little Lou Barton, and another set of Wilbers whom I think you do not know so well, who are married now--my gay cousins, then, most of them beauties, all of them rich and fashionable, are somewhat ashamed of me, and have let me feel it in every petty way that we women know so well how to find. I am ugly and poor, my earning my own living is a spot upon their gentility, and I have unfortunately, and quite against my will, more than once given them cause for serious annoyance and apprehension. Then, one of our uncles, who is a bachelor and very rich, has insisted that I am never to be slighted--always to be invited to everything in the shape of a party given by the family. If it lay with me, of course I would never accept these invitations, but I have had it explained to me over and over again that my not doing so is visited upon the party-givers in one way or another by our masterful uncle Rufus. So, occasionally, very much against my inclination, I leave my little third-story room, with its cozy fire and humble adornments, and sit in the corner of their great rooms, a "looker-on in Vienna" in every sense.
I have many kind friends: it would be strange if in all these years I had not found some who did not care for outward advantages. I have dreamed my sweet love-dream, and it is over, and the roses have grown above my buried hopes.
Since then I have let one idea fill my life to the exclusion of everything else, putting away from me all desires and thoughts of other needs; and that too has left me. I call it an "idea" for lack of a better name. I had put away all thought of marriage with my bright youth, but took into my heart instead what I deemed would serve as well--a friendship for another woman. For ten years we knew no separate life--I thought no separate hopes. She had loved, been on the eve of marriage, her lover had died: that was her heart's history, and henceforth the idea of love had fallen out of both our lives--not the idea only, but the possibility of love. I thought so--she said so.
I trusted her and loved her with a perfect love. I wound my hopes about her: I gave up all my life to her as if she had been my lover. I never cared to form other friendships. I deprived myself of all possibilities of making other ties of any sort, and with the first opportunity she whistled me down the wind, and cared no more for me than if she had never professed to love me. She had been my one bright thing--she was sweet and winsome--the one golden gleam in my sombre life. My future was bound up in her so completely that when she severed the fine, close cords (brittle, yet so strong) which had bound us together for years, she cut into my heart--nay more, wrested from me all my sweet trusts and faiths. If she is false, who else in all God's earth is true? I pity myself very much. You, of course, will not see why her marrying should make a difference if we loved, and will call me selfish. Not so, not so! She might have married as soon as it pleased her, and I should have been glad. It would have made a difference, of course: she must in some sort have been parted from me, but that I could have borne if it made her happy. But from her acceptance of her lover--about whom we will say nothing, save that he was the sort of man she had always held in abhorrence--she has coolly ignored my right to any part or lot in her fate. She had told me (or I, poor fool! thought so) every hope and fear of her life: now she told me what she chose, and was astonished that I expected more--hurt that I seemed changed and did not find my friendship flourish on crumbs after being nourished for years from full loaves--was quite unhappy that I cared so little for the minor concerns of her life, when, good lack! I did not know what I might or might not ask and not be snubbed; for once she told me there were things due to the man one is going to marry (at that time she had not got to the extent of saying whom one loves) that could not be spoken of to me. Of course she had only to mention the fact to me to make it perfectly plain, and henceforth he and his doings, his belongings and himself, all of them of the tamest sort at best, were a sealed book to me. And again she quenched a feeble effort of mine to get back to my old place, by telling me such topics she could discuss only with her sister, "her shadow sister" she prettily called her. So I am desolate!
Knowing this, you may understand in some degree what could induce a little waif like me to accept such an offer as yours. I think no one in all God's earth is more desolate than I. In my heart I bear always that unforgotten love in my life. I have only a barren waste to show. It is as if I had started from a lovely, radiant garden in the fair morning of my life, in which I had left the bright, sweet rose of my love, and walking along a narrow, dark path, had clasped hands with, and drawn my light and warmth from, a figure walking close beside me; and though from all sides as I walked forms had come to me, offering me fair fruits and sweet flowers, I declined them all without ever a word of thanks, being so content with my one companion. And suddenly, when all my youth, all my prospects of other things, had gone, this idealized one had withdrawn its hand-clasp, and turning on me a face I did not know, faded into darkness, leaving me nothing but my broken hopes, a wreath of withered flowers,
"Tangled down in chains about my feet."
You do not of course realize how the old French émigré blood in my veins, inherited from my father, makes this a very vital matter to me. We cling to our hopes very tenaciously while they abide--then we are distraught. We loved, my father and I, very few, but those with a clinging oneness that is wellnigh pain: he loved my mother and myself--that was all. Likewise I had my two: they having failed me, my life is a blank. I have heard of empty-hearted people: I know now what the phrase means. I am empty-hearted: I have not one hope, one particle of faith, one real, honest desire, except to "drie my weir," as the Scotch say, doing my duty as best I may, as it comes to me. But I have a woman's hatred of pity: my cousins have long accorded me a contemptuous pity for being an old maid. I laughed their pity to scorn while I had Esther Hooper. What more did I need? We could enact over again the sweet old life of the Ladies of Llangollen.
We had planned our lives a thousand times. Poor we both were, yet we would put something away every year for our old age, and work cheerily on until we could work no more, then creep to our nest like a couple of old kittens, and cuddle down by our warm, pleasant fire--together, and therefore content. Well, you see it was not to be: she had grown affrighted, I suppose, at the thought of all that weary life with only me, and has married a man who outrages all her delicate instincts and traditions of an accordant husband. But why speak of him? He supports her, and she has escaped the obloquy of old-maidism. She has married a maintenance. She says she loves him, so of course she does.
For myself, my health, which has always been very rugged, has failed me utterly this last year; but as my bread depends upon my ability to endure daily and constant fatigue, I have forced myself to endeavor to get up the amount of strength required for my winter's work by the present expedition, planned for me by a friend. Bah! what do I talk of friendship for? An old lady who was once a teacher in the school from which my father had married my mother, and who, I think, had cared with more than friendship for him, has in these last few years fallen heir to a small property--not a very great deal, but enough to enable her to live in comfort, and exercise her kindly heart in deeds of charity occasionally. She has chosen for years to occupy rooms beneath my own, and has always been a sort of mother to me. Most of the pretty things that have fallen into my life, and most of its pleasures, have come to me through her. She has many troublesome faults, as we all have, but she is old, and I have always had Esther to talk them over and laugh them off with, so have borne them easily. This year, because she saw I was dying, she took me with her to the mountains of Vermont, and I have got a new lease of life, and new capacities for suffering as well.
On our way back she was suddenly attacked with the illness which detained us at this Boston hotel. Here your accident laid you up, and the rest came as I have told.
You have married me to rid yourself of a union with a woman you detest, being utterly indifferent to me. I have married you because I cannot bring myself to go back to that old teaching-life, now so cold and gray. I think I can earn my board in taking care of your belongings, and the having saved you from a dreadful fate must compensate to you for the little of my presence you will for the future be compelled to endure. It need not be much or long continued if we start with a fair comprehension of each other.
This brings me to the reason of all this long history. I have always looked upon marriage without love as nothing more or less than legalized vice. I think you, who are so intrinsically a man of the world, will have imbibed the (so-called) sensible and popular views upon such subjects, and will at once coincide with me that in such a union as ours--a literal mariage de convenance on both sides--my ideas are not unwise. Since upon you will henceforth depend my maintenance (as I of course understand that a wife who worked for her own support would be a disgrace to you: indeed, I doubt whether the having married a girl who has already done so is not a cause of shame), I ask that now, when Mrs. Keller is about to leave me, and my arrangements as your wife must be finally made--when, in fact, her giving up her room necessitates my coming to yours, her leaving compelling me either to go with her, or come, as of course I must, to you--we may have a definite understanding as to our future relations.
You have been kind enough to approve of the little I have been able to do for you since our marriage--to say to Mrs. Keller you did not know what it was to be taken care of in sickness; and to myself you have more than once laughingly spoken of a wife as a good institution, adding, that had you known how comfortable it was to have some one about you to think of and care for you, you would have invested in the article before; and so on. I am glad of this: I am pleased that my society has not proved repugnant to you; for since it has been no annoyance in its first trial, I think we can manage that it shall not be so in the future. I would ask, as an especial piece of mercy to "your handmaiden," that you will grant her some favors at the outset of our somewhat tangled fate. Please let me be your sister. It is for your well-being the world should know me as your wife, and, the Lord helping me, I will be a willing, faithful helpmeet to you, caring most for your comfort and happiness, spending and being spent in your service; never demanding or desiring your attention, except so much as is due me in outward seeming; interfering with none of your pleasures or pursuits, or thrusting my needs or feelings never before you. I have no expectation of winning your love: it has been an understood thing from the first--that is something neither expects from the other--therefore any show of caressing fondness upon your part would be quite out of keeping with our position. I have watched with some amusement, and a little pain that you should imagine it requisite, your attempts at petting me during these last two weeks. Poor, helpless man! it was a little hard to have to pretend an interest and tenderness you did not feel. Will you let this cease, with every other demonstration of affection, in our private relations?
For the rest, claiming nothing from you, giving you nothing but the services for which you render me a full equivalent, I grant you, as far as I have a right to do so, the largest liberty of action. We are only jealous of those we love: therefore all women will be as free to you as they have hitherto been or their will accords, save that you have debarred yourself for a time from offering any one of them marriage. I hope to be so little trouble to you, and so serviceable to you in many ways, that you shall realize to the full that if an unloving union could be so much more comfortable than a bachelor's life, a life passed with a loving and beloved wife would be bliss indeed, and so when my life has ended you will not be sorry that I stopped in your path a few years. For I shall not trouble you very long. I am a poor little perfumeless flower, having no sweetness or beauty with which to charm the eye or senses, only fit to grow among the kitchen herbs--rue and thyme, and such old-fashioned things. But I need a great deal of sunshine, spite of my plainness, to keep life in me. And now that all the heat and passion of love, all the sunny hopes and glow of friendship, have left me, I shall just fade and fade until some day you will find the poor little weed has dropped to earth for ever.
I am but two years younger than yourself, and women, especially women with a great sorrow, age cruelly fast. I look and feel older than I am--you wear your years like a crown, and appear younger than you are. I have made my little venture on life's ocean--made and failed: my barque, freighted with a few cherished hopes, has been wrecked, and though I have reached a rock to which I can cling for a time, yet I am terribly hurt, the waves have buffeted me cruelly, and in a little while I shall let go my hold and float out--out into the ocean of eternity. Ah! there is comfort after all: life is hard, but afterward there is peace and rest!
I am nearly through this long tirade. Pardon its length: it is my first, and shall be my last, heart-outpouring to you; and if it make you comprehend me, I shall not have written or you have read in vain.
Your income will not support the establishment your position in society would require if we went to housekeeping; besides, you would feel as if you must then be more stationary, more in your own home, than is at present your custom, therefore in a degree in bondage. And a hotel-life is very expensive and very cheerless. You have kindly said you intended dividing your income with me, giving me half. At first I was indignant at the idea, but now I think I see that it will be in every way the best. One of my cousins has been occupying a very elegantly-appointed suite of rooms on Twenty-fourth street. Harry writes me he is going very suddenly to Europe. His rooms will of course be vacant: he talks of renting them furnished. I have thought, if you would not object to it, we might take them off his hands. I have calculated that the part of your means you intend for me will meet all our expenses of every sort if you permit me to have the arranging, of our daily affairs. I will pay the rent and meet all the expenses of our living out of this sum, leaving you your reserved funds to meet your ordinary requirements and pleasures. By this arrangement, you see, I shall get my living free, and I am sure shall have a surplus over and above our expenses, as I am a good manager and used to making the most of everything.
There is one sacrifice which, do we enter into this arrangement, I must ask of you--that when we return to New York you give up your valet. For more than one reason: I cannot have a spy upon the mode of life we are to lead. I am foolishly sensitive of the position of a neglected wife, and I feel assured your gentlemanly instincts will prevent your ever offering any observable slight to the woman who bears your name. Besides, in the apartments I propose our taking there will be no room for a man-servant, and one of the maids connected with the house will be all the assistant I shall require. When you are away on your frequent excursions to all parts of the world it will be very easy to provide yourself a servant. Will you try for a few weeks how well I can supply, or have the place supplied, of this man, whom you intend in any case to dismiss? This is all. Next week, the doctor thinks, you may be moved to a lounge, and perhaps the week after be able to travel, or at farthest the week following.
I acknowledge to the womanish feeling of being exultant at the idea of the envy I shall awaken in the breasts of your adoring circle of lady friends--my lady cousins among them--in having, spite of my unattractiveness, secured the husband they have long striven by every wile to win. Ah! they little know, and I trust never may, why I, without seeking, have ensnared their rara avis to be my legal bondsman. Rather a contradiction in terms!
The pretty fiction of our sudden marriage being a renewal of an old love-affair is more of an untruth than I am used to letting pass, and yet has enough truth in it to make it reality, since you were the hero of my girlish dreams. So we will let the explanation thus worded, which you have written to my uncles and stated verbally to Mrs. Keller, stand; also, that the undue haste was caused by your pressing need of me during your accident. I think, indeed, from my cousin Harry's letter yesterday, and one from Shelton last week, they have taken the idea that we have been spending the summer together, and that you were following me home when you were stayed in your mad career by a broken leg.
I am done; are you not thankful? There have been some things in this letter very hard to say, which, if I were braver or knew you better, I should have liked to be more outspoken about. But enough has, I think, been said to make you appreciate my earnest desires and my reasons for them. I am most truly,
And he, prone upon his back this warm September day, read this long epistle from his new wife, then laid it down and closing his eyes murmured softly, "What a strange little puss it is!" Lying in the dim light her hand had created for him, he thought of his own troubles and hers, just as she had stated them. The blood would flush up to his brow as her cool ignoring of his surpassing attractions, to which all other women accorded their full meed of praise, rose up before him. He of whom it had been said if he beckoned with his finger women left their duties, gave up their very life to do his pleasure!--he to have the girl he had honored by making his wife, a little brown woman, plain and almost passé (he was man enough not to care for her poverty), show she cared no more for his love than he did for hers I--was as indifferent to him as he to her! Indifference from a woman was a new experience to him, and annoyed him.
Yet her quaint, frank letter touched him. What did she mean by dying soon and letting him be free again? Poor little midge! was she dying of a broken heart because a treacherous woman had fooled her out of a part of her life? Poor little robin! she was his wife now, and he could heal the worst heartache in any woman's breast. He had tried that thing before, and succeeded, even if he broke the heart afterward. Die, indeed! Not if he knew it: even Death should not have a little woman he meant to be good to.
And as he remembered all her faithfulness to him during these weary weeks of pain, he thought, "By Jove! beauty's not all, for no woman, had her face been like that of Phryne of Thebes, or her charms as entrancing as the bewitching Dudu's, could have been more lovely in her kindness to me. How brave and strong she has been! What a faithful little soul it is! Always ready, day and night, to do just what I want done and in the way I want it, never knocking things about or fidgeting round, but just ready-handed, neat and bright. God knows, a handsome woman wouldn't have risked the spoiling her beauty by all these weary, sleepless nights, especially for a man she did not love." And then to think she was actually willing to work and slave for him, and support him out of her share of the booty, and let him fool away his own on other women! "Wonder what the little dame means to buy her own fine things with, for even robins must get clothing? I'll ask her that. Bless the little woman's soul! she makes me think of her so much that I believe I'm half in love with her. Um!" and he stopped: "I'm getting sentimental and poetic, I swear! But if it were in me to love anything that was not beautiful, I believe I could love this little girl, who has come into my life so strangely. She owns up to having loved, and is done with all the stale farce. Some fools," and he felt very indignant, "slighted her because she had no beauty, though, upon my soul, now I think of it, I'm not so certain about that. There's a something in her face takes a man's breath--something that one would rather die than lose if he once loved it, and which once loved would be better than any beauty. What's that Spenser says?--
'A sweet, attractive kind of grace,...
The lineaments of gospel books,'
That's just it: it's a look that makes one think about one's prayers, if one only knew them. But whether the man slighted her or not, he missed it--confound him!--in losing such a love. I'll make her tell me his name. And as for being my sister, that's all nonsense, of course, as she's my wife." Then more thoughtfully, "Well, maybe not: a household where there is no love is cruel--I knew that in my early home--and children are a beastly trouble, and as expensive as a man's wines. She's a brick, this wife of mine, and as sensible as steel. I'll put myself in her hands for better or for worse, I vow I will!
"The jolly way she manged that Rollins affair was proof poz of her ability. Her cool assumption of wifely dignity--her actually bringing them up to see me without announcing their coming to me, and never letting them have one bout at me, was beyond anything! It's like a dip in the sea to recall it all. Her breezy voice coming in before them was all the warning I had: 'Oh certainly, you can come up and look at him, but not talk to him: he's nervous and feverish, and I cannot permit even such old friends as you doubtless are to say anything to him. You know, of course, the doctor thought he needed constant attention, and caused us to hurry our marriage in a most Gretna-Green style; but I could not nurse him unless we were married. And it did not matter so much, after all, since we had loved'--and she hesitated with the prettiest affectation of having said something she ought not--'we had cared for each other since we were quite children. Ross's sister Bell was my school-friend.' Then she brought them straight to the bed, and stooping down gave me the only kiss with which she has honored me--her show kiss, I call it--saying, 'My darling' (how soft she said it, too, with a little trilling cadence upon the sweet old word!)--'My darling, you are not to speak, or even look, save this once: now I must cover up my dearie's eyes;' and she laid her cool hand over my eyes and held it there while they stayed. 'These are some kind New York friends, Mr. Rollins and his good wife'--and a faint pressure on my face emphasized the joke--'who are come to see you. I cannot understand all they mean, except that you have been behaving badly, making these good people's daughter believe you meant to marry her, when of course you were only going to marry your little, ugly Percy. Oh, my bad boy, what shall I ever do with you? Oh the hearts you have broken while you have been waiting for me! Ah! dear, bad boy!'--and, as if overcome with tenderness, she laid her cheek down on mine. I clasped my arms about her--the first and last time I've had a chance, by George!--but she sprang away with a laugh: 'No, you shall not be petted for being bad. Why, Ross, these dear people came to take you and marry you to their beautiful daughter, for I know she's a beauty, since her mother is still so handsome.'
"Oh, it was gorgeous, to see the Rollins standing there in all her Cleopatra-like splendor, utterly upset and put down by my little brown berry! And the impossibility of correcting such a mistake without putting herself in an absurd position actually stopped the Rollins speech, and--Lord help me!--I thought that mouth could only be closed by bon-bons and a man's kisses--any man's, par exemple. And her poor old catspaw of a pater stood helpless before my little hurricane--a very reed shaken by the wind. Then my sea-breeze spoke again: 'But the doctor will shed vials of wrath upon me for letting you see strangers.' (It must have cut the Rollins sore to be called a stranger to me!) 'But these kind friends could not realize your being ill, so I was fain to let them see my Apollo in his box; but we will go now if you please;' and she positively ushered them out in wordless dismay, bidding them good-bye at once, and seeing them no more. I thought she would have rushed back to laugh the scene over with me, but that shows how little I know her. When, in the course of an hour, she did come, it was with such an utter ignoring of having done a smart thing, waving aside my admiration of her finesse, that I was taken aback. She said sadly, 'I am unused to falsehood, and finesse of any sort is distasteful to me. I quenched this woman this time, but, in spite of her bad, hard face, I pity her very much. You, and such men as you, have, I suppose, made her what she is, God help her!' So by this good little girl's management I am rid of my troubles. I declare I'll do just what she wishes, and be thankful my follies have worked me no more harm."
Then he began to wish she'd come in, and to feel aggrieved and neglected because she did not come--to feel an eager desire to see her and talk the matter of the letter over with her. But he had read it through again twice ere she appeared, and then, to his dismay, equipped for a journey, and saying, in the most matter-of-fact, nonchalant manner possible, "Ross, Mrs. Keller has come to say good-bye. I am going with her to Newport, where she makes the only perilous part of the trip--the, to her, dreadful change from cars to boat. So I shall be away all night, of course."
Then Mrs. Keller came forward with--"I hope you don't mind my taking her off, Mr. Norval?"
"But I do mind it deucedly, madam," he said. "Why, Percy, I don't like your traveling alone this way at all. Why can't James go with Mrs. Keller?"
"Not for the world, Ross, thank you. I'm used to taking care of myself, and of Mrs. Keller too, for that matter. I'm not much of a traveler, because I have not had much of a chance--none, indeed, except what she's given me--but somehow I always manage to come out right. You are very kind to offer to spare James, but he's your necessity. I have told him about the medicines, and how to loosen the bandages at night. So I expect to find you better than usual when I get back. He knows your ways so much better than I, and I sha'n't be here to interfere;" and she went about arranging little matters as she spoke, and not looking at him.
But Mrs. Keller saw the look of annoyance upon his face, and said, "But, Percy, Mr. Norval dislikes your going, and you're bound to stay."
"Oh, nonsense, Mrs. Keller! Of course he don't care particularly, as I am going to be away but one night, and he's got to spend all my life with me;" and her face saddened, he thought. "I'm sure to come back to-morrow: my cousin Shelton says, 'Percy always manages to be at hand when she's wanted.' Am I to write to Harry that we will take the rooms? I must do it at once, or he may let some one have them;" and she came and stood beside him.
He answered, sullenly, "Do just as you like about it: it's no concern of mine."
"Of course I shall do nothing of the kind. If you had liked the idea, been very much pleased with it, it would have been different. I only threw out the suggestion as a mere suggestion. But we will think of it no more." All this in her quick, bright way, without a shade of annoyance visible, and she began talking of something else as if the matter was settled: "The hotel-keeper will put a sofa-bed into your dressing-room for me to-morrow, so I shall be quite out of the way when your callers are here. I have told them about bringing my trunk in there from Mrs. Keller's room: James will attend to it all for me. So, as long as you are a 'prisoner of hope' in here, I'll reign supreme in the dressing-room. Now say 'Good-bye,' Mrs. Keller: James will put you in the coach while I finish my adieux."
"But, Percy, you mistake," he said, quite humbly, when her old friend was gone: "you do talk a fellow down so confoundedly," with a laugh. "I like your idea about the rooms most heartily: indeed, I like all your ideas, all your letter, except where you are so deucedly severe upon me; but even that is true, and I like it when you tell me of it. I think your management the best in everything, and I expect to be as happy as a king, or rather a good subject, with my little queen to rule over me and keep me in order in our new domain."
She clasped her hands in a quick, passionate sort of way at his words, as if they gave her a pang. He saw that, but her calm face and voice made him half doubt if it meant anything. "Are you quite sure, or are you only saying it because you think I have a wish to go there? I thought you did not seem to like it just now, and indeed I do not care: I shall be quite content with whatever you arrange when you are well."
"No, Percy: write and say we will take the rooms from the time he leaves them. I"--with a half-abashed laugh--"I was only cross because you are going away. I shall miss you sorely, dear, and I'm sorry you're going and are so glad to go--that's all."
Her face turned crimson to the very temples, and she said, "I'm sorry I made my arrangements without consulting you: I will not do so in future. I did not think you would care one way or the other."
"You've been so good to me, little one, and I'm so unused to being cared for except as a society ornament, that I think I shall never be able to get along without you again."
Her eyes filled with tears which she would not let fall, and she said, "You are very kind to say so: I will be more careful in future. But I must go now." He waited in quite an eager expectancy to see if she would kiss him. "Take good care of yourself, and be sure I shall come by the first train;" and she started to leave the bedside.
He caught her dress and drew her toward him, holding her hands: "Is that all, Percy? Is there nothing else?"
"I think not, Ross," she said, doubtingly, but coloring painfully.
"Kiss me good-bye, Percy." She held down her face instantly, and when he had kissed her, drew herself away without a word; but he clasped his arm about her: "You have not kissed me after all, my darling."
"My kisses are nothing worth now, Ross: their sweetness died out years ago. Yours are good enough for both;" and she laughed and left him.
He was bitterly chagrined: it seemed a little thing to make him feel so mortified. That she should leave him willingly, that doing so she should refuse to grant him so small a favor, when almost all other women--her own pretty cousins among them--had denied nothing he chose to ask, it was incomprehensible!
"By Jove! I never cared so much for a little thing in my life as her leaving me and not caring to kiss me. I swear, I'm a perfect baby about her! Little, truthful, honest soul! I believe she could make another creature of me if she cared enough for me to try. There is something restful in truth and honest purity, after all: one feels safe, and grounded on a sure place. It's good to have a little fairy lying close in one's bosom; and I vow I'll have my little brownie there yet, though I have to go as suitor on a regular courting expedition to my own wife before I win her heart. Curse this old lover of hers, who bars her heart against me! And curse my own past follies, which make a good woman fear to trust me! Marriage is a sell generally, even when a vast amount of so-called love is brought to the sacrificial altar; so perhaps I shall not make a bad thing of it if I win my wife's heart after she knows me au fond, instead of in the glamour of gas-light flirtations. Poor little heart! What a pitiful story it is! How quaintly she writes her pathetic, desolate history! What a ready pen the little woman holds!" and he took out her letter again. "I declare, the child has better attractions than beauty--a lovely, faithful soul."
But though he was tender of her in his thoughts, he was a hard master that night: everything went wrong, nothing pleased or contented him, and the sullen, much-tried servant at last announced that with the morning he would leave his master to his own devices.
"Go, and be damned to you!" was the savage reply; and the man took him at his word, decamping, after making a few necessary arrangements, as soon after breakfast as he could.
"And I have been as good to that fellow the year he has lived with me as I could," thought Ross Norval as hour after hour he lay alone wanting everything--water, the papers, a handkerchief. There was nothing he did not want, and he could reach nothing but those nauseous medicines. "Service cannot be bought: in very truth, love and patience must be a free gift. However, now even love and patience seem to have fled from me. I want my wife--I want her awfully."
Percy, with her sad little heart lying as heavy as a plummet in her breast, was just as bright and useful and entertaining to her cranky old friend as if life was a boon instead of a bane to her. You know from her letter how bitter life was to her; and I think if you have ever known sorrow and a great disappointment, you will comprehend how it was possible for her, with the fear of God before her, and a desire to be His faithful child, to make this match for herself. Anything was better than the dull stagnation into which she had fallen: she had felt this year, unless some great change came to her to take her out of this weary groove in which she was set, she must go melancholy mad. She had laid out a hundred schemes, all of them, she knew, impracticable; and now, in a strange, providential way, this chance to change every thought and action of her whole life had come to her. Do you wonder much she accepted it? I think it was not strange.
That night after his offer (the night she had asked for in which to decide, although she said to herself, with a bitter little shrug as she made the request, "A woman who hesitates is lost"), as she lay awake pondering the whole matter, she thought: "It can't be worse than it is, and it won't be very long either way, I think. I can be faithful to him, make and mend, dig and delve, if needs be, for his benefit, in return for the honor he does me in giving me his name and protection. I shall expect nothing, literally nothing, from him that wives usually demand. I, who have borne for years with the caprice of school-girls, can surely bear the humors of one man, especially when his name shields me from other sorts of ills. I have rather plumed myself these last few months upon having learned the depth of meaning and force of truth there is in that expression from Sartor Resartus I used to think so wicked: 'Say to happiness, I can do without you--in self-renunciation life begins,' I can try it now. I need not be a spaniel or fawn upon my lord, and yet I can obey and honor, if he will let me, this man to whom I shall vow myself for life. For life! Can I endure it all the years I may have to live an unloved wife--so near and yet so far from him to whom I am bound? Will it not be a death in life? Will it be better than this dead, cold monotony I now bear? Better or worse? Ah, there's the rub! I can never hope to win his faithful, abiding love. Even did use make me acceptable to him, I could not trust its continuance. And yet who knows whether, if I try to keep a pure life and an honest purpose to walk before him worthily every day, I may not win from him at last a sort of respect and friendship that will be next to love? I will some time let him know of the friends my literary efforts have brought me. I know he will be proud of the judgment that scholarly men, whose opinions he honors, have placed upon the heirloom of intellectual ability that has been my sole dower from my dear father and his learned ancestors. And when I am Ross Norval's wife I will reveal myself to these letter-friends of my inner life, and, meeting them no longer in the spirit only, let them see eye to eye their hidden sister, their 'nebulous child,' as they have half playfully, half angrily, called me. A husband's hand shall rive the rock in which their crystal has been for years embedded.
"Oh, Ross, I shall be glad to come to my inheritance through you; to gather my band of chosen ones into my actual, as I have long held them in my inner, life; to know those at last whom my unprotected woman's state has hitherto forbidden me to know. And if I take him, if I give myself to him, I shall at last have the desire of my life. Ah, Ross! you will never know that your boyish flattering, which meant nothing to you, and should have meant nothing to me, did really mean so much that it simply broke my heart, leaving me at sixteen so utterly incapable of loving any man but yourself that since then no hand has ever touched the seal which closed the fountain of love and passion in my heart for ever. Ah! I wonder what penalty there is for those who carelessly destroy our hopes and blot out all possibilities of love from us? What would you say, Ross Norval, if you knew that the last kiss I ever gave to any man was given you that cold, dark day they buried my father? You came with a note from Bell--she was dying, she said; after to-day no one but her family would be admitted to her: would I come and say good-bye to her, even from my father's grave? I went with you, and stayed an hour with her. Then you brought me, more dead than alive, back to my desolate home, and taking me in your arms carried me from the carriage to my bed. As you laid me down you said, 'My sister's little friend, I am glad to have seen you once again. Bell tells me all these years I have been absent you have been pleasant friends to each other. You are dear and sweet because she loved you. I shall never see you again perhaps, for when she dies I shall have no ties here and shall go elsewhere. Kiss me good-bye,' and I did.
"For a year after that I was alone: then Esther Hooper came, and I was not wretched. I have had my share of lovers and friends--what girl has not?--have had rare treats of music, of books and paintings, and shared their pleasant harmonies with an appreciative soul; and I have been very contented.
"But now I am desolate again, and out of the darkness you have come and beckoned me to follow you and stand near you all the rest of my life. It will be happiness enough, as much as is good for me, to live with you, even if I am nothing to you, for, oh, I love you very faithfully!"
And so, you know, they were married, with only the doctor and Mrs. Keller to witness the ceremony; and at once, with her little decided way, the sort of certainty that years of self-dependence give, she became his nurse, attending to him as persistently and indefatigably as if the sole purpose for which she had been born was that. From the first service she rendered him--bathing his head and face through an intense August day with iced water delicately perfumed, arranging the curtains so that the air, when there was a breeze, blew freely to him, though the glare of the sun was gone, and his room in dim, soothing shadow--she seemed a blessing to him. Some hours after she came with her bright, quick ways, arranging his disordered room, bringing order out of chaos on his dressing-table, never peeping into things, and yet getting them into beautiful order, and, wonderful to relate, keeping them so: the air seemed to grow cooler, his medicine less bitter, the time shorter, and his broken leg and weary back to ache less acutely.
One day she said in a shy way, "Mr. Norval, if you will let James lay out your things, I will see what mending they need, and will sit here and do them, so you sha'n't spend so many hours alone. Mrs. Keller has made some friends in the house, and they kindly sit with her so much that she does not need me."
"But, Percy, what's the use of James having a hand in it? Here are my keys," with a laugh as he handed them to her: "you know they are a part of the worldly goods with which I did thee endow; and the keys always belong to the female department by right, don't they?"
She took them with a vivid blush. "Shall I look over your trunks and bureau, then?" she asked.
"Certainly, while I go to sleep and dream what a jolly thing it is to have you here." Then, pretending to sleep, he watched her with careful hands examine his belongings, with a contemptuous little smile at this piece of bungling mending or an anxious frown over that frayed place. Then how neatly she folded and laid back all the good, and seated herself with a pile before her and began to sew! When he opened his eyes she handed him the keys.
"No, Percy, keep them: I make all right and title to them over to you," he said.
From that day he seemed to feel delight in her companionship, reading to her hour after hour while she sewed, always choosing some poetical or light bit of reading--"To suit my capacity," she thought.
So they had gone on week after week--with the single exception of the Rollins episode--without any change. He was a rare favorite in society, and every day received a host of calls from gentlemen, baskets of fruits and flowers from ladies. Always, when a card was sent up, she would gather all her womanish "traps" together and go to Mrs. Keller--this, too, in spite of his earnest invitation to her to remain.
"No: you can have a pleasanter call with no ladies present, and Mrs. Keller needs me. I'll be back in time for your medicine."
Once or twice some one, more intimate or free than usual, would run up unannounced and catch her there. Her acceptation of the situation was, he thought, perfect. Without a shadow of embarrassment she acknowledged the introduction, "My wife," did the honors of the occasion, said a few words regarding his state, and with some such words as "I will be back in an hour or so, Ross," would leave the room.
Thus he was utterly unaware of what her abilities were. Whether she was capable of holding a conversation, or could hold her own in society, he could not opine; and it annoyed him keenly, for he was, like most society-men, very punctilious regarding the manners of the particular woman who belonged to him. That she was, in fact, an elegant conversationalist, quick and brilliant at repartee, a fine linguist and an intelligent thinker for a woman, he did not dream.
Nevertheless, the mere having her about him day after day, with her dainty little ways, grew to be a pleasure to him: the making her grave little face, with its haunting look of sorrow, break into smiles, the light come into her soft gray eyes, became a real delight to him. Then the color flushed over her cheek at his lightest word, and he found a real interest in watching it glow and fade from her pale face.
"She's the sort of brune that colors well," he thought. "Old Sir John's fancy of--
'Her cheek was like a Cathrine pear,
The side that's next the sun'--
suits her exactly. And her hair, with the glint of gold in the chestnut hue, would be a glory in a beautiful woman. Every motion of her heart shows in her face. She'd never make a woman of the world: she cannot hide her feelings, but lets one read them like an open book." Which was all he knew about it, since, spite of her treacherous color, those years of hard duty had trained her into the most perfect self-control on all needful and great occasions and matters.
How he missed her light step! how he had wanted her all these two days! for, though it was scarcely past noon, and she had gone late the day before, he was sure it was that--"And seems like six, by George!" But, as he lay feverish and famished for a drink, a very ill-used man, she opened the door, and the air seemed lightened of its troubles at once.