13. If Need, To Die--Not Live
"Have I changed, or has everything changed?" Eleanor asks herself, as the days slip by in the old farmhouse.
Mr. and Mrs. Grebby are just the same warm-hearted, genial couple as of yore; they crack the same jokes at their knife-and-fork tea, while Rover wags his tail as pleasantly as ever, and Black Bess trots to market.
The school children have not forgotten "Teacher," and, greet her in demonstrative fashion, flinging their small arms round her neck when she stoops to kiss them.
Yet Mrs. Roche finds that their mouths are sticky, and the little hands she clasps in hers hot and unpleasant to the touch.
She rises early, and on churning morning helps her mother even more industriously than in past days, yet her heart is heavy, and the old songs never pass her lips without a stifled sob. She tries to hum the "Miller of Dee," as for the sake of happy recollections she polishes afresh the pewter service on the parlour table, yet all the while her eyes are scrutinising the inartistic arrangement of the room. Why should the horsehair sofa be placed straight against the wall, and those ghastly wax flowers under glass covers adorn the stiff chimneypiece, which might be made so pretty? The memorial cards, that are framed and hung on the wall--how gruesome they appear in the spring sunshine! She longs to pull them down, and burn them, but to do so would be to violate poor Mrs. Grebby's most sacred feelings.
She looks in the old family Bible, standing in its accustomed place on a table by the window. There are the births, deaths, and marriages of the Grebby family for generations. Oh, if her marriage could be blotted out, and a date of death mark her name. She envies the twins that died in their infancy, when she--Eleanor--was only two years old.
The pewter pots tire her arm, unaccustomed, now to rubbing anything but diamond trinkets. The service she so admired once does not attract her now. She puts it away half clean, and longs for a novel.
Vegetating was not very soothing after all. The poisoned arrows had followed her even to Copthorne, and their wounds could not heal. The thoughts she struggled to suppress, here in the dead calm, proclaimed themselves more loudly, worked fiercer havoc. She longs, pines, sickens for a sight of one she must never see, for a voice it would be death to hear, the touch of a hand it were sin to clasp.
So she wanders about in her strange state of depression, pretending to enjoy the glorious green of the spring, and seeing only light and darkness, cold and desolation, in primrose banks and rippling streams.
Mr. Grebby is too preoccupied with his cattle and his land to notice the change in Eleanor, while Mrs. Grebby takes infinite pains to give her married daughter the best their house affords, and only remarks on her lack of appetite, at which she loudly laments.
"You ain't eatin' anything, dearie," she says one morning at breakfast. "Try a tumbler of new milk to put some strength into you. It's them towns as makes you pale and spiritless. I knows 'em. We was that done up after our visit to you and cousin Harriett it was quite surprisin'. But law, how Pa did make me walk in London. Up them Monument steps, and down again before I'd got my breath, with poor Rover in charge of a policeman below, and everyone a laughing 'cause I was puffing so."
Eleanor forces a smile. She was watching for the post.
The moment the man's tread is heard on the gravel she starts up and runs to the door, dreading every day that Giddy may divulge her address.
She longs to write to Carol Quinton, but dare not. She knows she is too weak to run the risk.
There are two letters for her, one from Philip, the other from Mrs. Mounteagle.
She reads Giddy's first.
It is amusing and frivolous as usual. The last half, however, amazes Eleanor.
"I am going to be married," it says in the middle of a description of a new bonnet. "My future husband is a wealthy man and a general. Congratulate me! It will not be a long engagement, as he is seventy-five to-morrow, but loves with the ardour of a seventeen year old! Talking of boys, I am asking Bertie to be best man. By this you will see all arrangements for the ceremony are being left entirely to my management. It will be costly and elaborate. My gown alone would have swallowed up dear Bertie's income. I have given him a splendid new watch to console him, as his was snatched last year at Epsom. I met my General at Lady MacDonald's. He moves in a very good set--gout permitting. Excuse my humour.--Your elated and strong-minded GIDDY.
"P.S.--Don't you think I am a noble woman? He is one eye short, which is rather a recommendation, but has been one of the handsomest men about town."
"How strange," thinks Eleanor. Then she throws the letter aside in disgust. "And very loathsome!" she adds, tearing open Philip's envelope.
She reads it slowly at the breakfast table.
"Philip is coming this evening," she says.
Mr. and Mrs. Grebby clap their hands.
"Well, now, I'm right glad," they exclaim together. "We could see 'ow you missed 'im, dearie."
Eleanor feels uncomfortably guilty. What if they knew that her every thought was wandering to another!
Already she has begun to try and piece the photograph together again, regretting her hasty action in the railway carriage. Before reaching Copthorne she had hidden the fragments safely in a corner of her dressing-bag. She hardly knew whether to be glad or sorry that Philip is coming. It will break the dull monotony of the day. At any rate she will get herself up to look as much like the old Eleanor as possible, though the thought of wandering with him through the haunts of past days is distasteful.
She knows it will please him, however; so, crushing her own feelings, she dons an old dress made by the village dressmaker, one which has hung in her wardrobe ever since she left home, then proceeds to search for the long disused sun bonnet.
The day is almost bright enough to excuse the picturesque headgear, eventually unearthed from the bottom of a tin trunk, and ironed by Eleanor's own hands.
She feels as if she were dressed up for amateur theatricals, and even denies herself the fashionable manner in which her hair is now arranged, going back to the simple style before she knew London or Giddy Mounteagle.
"It certainly is becoming," she says; "beauty unadorned," viewing her charms in this rustic guise before a cracked mirror. "Yet I wonder what the Richmond girls would think of me if I walked on the Terrace, Sunday morning after church, dressed like this?"
She looks so pretty that her heart sinks at the thought that it is Philip, not Carol, for whom she has prepared.
As she comes down the stairs Mrs. Grebby meets her pale and trembling.
"What is the matter, mammy?" asks Eleanor, seeing that her mother is trying to gain breath for speech.
Mrs. Grebby puts her hand to her heart.
"There, there, child!" she says, "don't be frightened," while her legs seem sinking under her, and she grasps Eleanor's arm for support. "But the man from the post-office, 'e--e's brought a telegram for you."
"Anything wrong at home?" asks Mrs. Roche.
"Not that I know of--yet," continues the shaking woman; "it hasn't been opened."
Eleanor bursts out laughing, and the amused peal reassures Mrs. Grebby.
"Why, Ma, I get them nearly every day at Richmond, there is nothing to be alarmed at in a wire. Philip was going to let me know his train. I thought I told you."
She opens the message, and as she scans it her face falls.
"He is not coming," she says. "Too busy, and won't be able to manage it now. How like Philip! To let you get all ready for him and then fail."
It is more the annoyance of having dressed herself in vain than disappointment at not seeing him which vexes Eleanor.
"I dislike people throwing you over at the last moment; it is very inconsiderate and unkind. But I suppose he can't help it, poor fellow," with a touch of regret for her petulance. "I am very extravagant, Ma. I spend no end on clothes, though you wouldn't think it to look at me now. Philip just trots off to the City and makes the money, so it does not matter a bit."
Mr. Grebby expresses lavish sorrow at Mr. Roche's non-appearance, while Eleanor wanders out down the budding lanes towards the station, just as if Philip were coming after all, only there is neither tumult of sorrow nor joy in her heart. She feels just indifferent to everything and everybody. The hedges are sprouting with young green. Surely the world is fair to all eyes but Eleanor's!
Her head is bent, she is gazing on the ground.
Suddenly a shadow crosses her path--the shadow of a man.
She looks up slowly, standing still, rooted to the spot.
A cold chill creeps through her veins, gradually changing to burning fire. She can neither speak nor move, the hedges seem to fly round, the trees spin, the twittering birds shriek!
The word breaks from her lips at last like a cry.
Why has Philip failed her, why is he not here to save?
Someone is holding her hand in a passionate clasp, someone presses her cheeks, her lips! Is it a dream or reality, life or death?
The spring bursts suddenly into smiles. Nature laughs loudly, all the world is one wide pleasure field, a place to love, to die in for joy!
"Why did you run away?" he whispers, still holding her in his arms. "Why did you hide yourself from me, shut out the light from my days? It was cruel, Eleanor. Surely you knew I would have gone to the end of the world to find you, and you thought to evade me here."
"Fate has willed it otherwise. How did you discover me?"
"Giddy Mounteagle gave me your address. I never gave her a moment's peace till she divulged it, poor woman."
A spark of anger flashes in Eleanor's love-laden eyes.
"The traitress!" she murmurs under her breath.
"Ah! do not say that. She is happy herself, and I was so miserable, you were so miserable."
"How do you know?"
"I have read your heart like a book--it is mine and no other's. I mean to take it--cherish it--keep it--always!"
"You stole it from Philip--you stole it from me!" she cries, her voice shaken by fear and dread. "You see me as I am--weak, defenceless--loving you to my shame--my destruction. I am in your power body and soul--you have got my will as well--it is yours--all yours. Think for a moment, Carol, before you keep these stolen goods--what they cost--you and me. Pity me in this hopeless moment of surrender--make it less hard to part. Are we to lose everything? Think of your soul--and my soul. I believe that we both have them now in the palms of our hands--to cast into Hell--to lift up to Heaven! You should be the stronger. Remember what it is to be a man!"
"What is your ideal of poor mankind?" he asks hoarsely.
"To give--not take," replies Eleanor, in the words of Charles Kingsley, which rise suddenly as an inspiration to her tortured mind. "To serve--not rule. To nourish--not devour. To help--not crush. If need, to die--not live!"
"Then I will rise to your standard," he said boldly. "Eleanor, I will kill myself."
"How?" she asks.
"I care not; but to-day--this same hour--you will have driven me to my death!"
"Oh, Carol, you are cruel!" she sighs.
Then the words well into her brain, with fierce, upbraiding, horrible reality: "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow." She sees the faded towzled hair of the woman in the train, the dusty crape of her bonnet, the red upon her lips.
A cry escapes her, and sinking on the green bank by the roadside, Eleanor buries her face in the grass and sobs in uncontrollable anguish.
Carol cannot bear to watch her misery. He stoops down and gathers the little figure in his arms, straining it to his heart. He kisses dry the liquid eyes, and soothes the low deep sobs.
"I have decided," he says.
"And your choice, our fate, the end?" she asks breathlessly.
"To take," he replies, holding her fast, "not give back that which is mine, now and for ever. To rule (if that is the harsh term you give my love), to devour, to crush, to live, Eleanor, not die."
The words sound like a shout of victory on the still air. They kindle a mad delight in the woman's stricken heart.
"We will leave this miserable country, where you are a captive to a man who cannot hold your love, yet calls himself 'husband.' We will go away, no matter where, since we shall be together. We have only our two selves to live for now. The world was created for us alone, we need remember nothing else, an Eden to love in and be happy. Oh! my darling, how bright I will make your life, as it never was before."
"You are right," says Eleanor slowly. "I have never known true happiness. I was very fond of Philip when I married him--the lukewarm affection that grows cold instantly in the chill air of disagreement or mistrust. The love which you have kindled in me is something I did not know or dream of. It is worth all else!"
Carol takes her wedding finger, holds it to his lips a moment, then places an embossed gold ring below the knuckle, with "Kismet" engraved upon it.
Eleanor gazes on the ring wistfully. The words are full of meaning to her just now.
"'Kismet,'" she murmurs. "Only a true Mahommedan should use that expression."
She draws a cat's eye stone, that Philip gave her, from her hand, and offers it to Carol.
This is the last, the supreme act of surrender--that, more than all else, renounces for ever and ever Philip, honour, wifehood, and lays her low in the dust.
They walk through the green fields hand in hand; they talk of things to be. The children coming home from school stare at Eleanor, and think how beautiful she is, wondering at the handsome stranger who gazes in her eyes, and whispers so low they cannot catch the words.
Yes, she looks just the same, as the evening tints fall with a rosy glow on her rich hair and simple sun-bonnet. How innocent she appears in the plain, homely attire, and that strange but glorious smile parting her lips. There are daisies under her feet, and blue sky over her head; love is in her heart, but hell is in her eyes.
Her eyes droop. The children cannot see--Hell!