Volume 2
Chapter XIX
 

Half an hour later, as Ferrol was passing from Louis Lavilette's stables into the road leading to the Seigneury he met Sophie Farcinelle, face to face. In a vague sort of way he was conscious that a look of despair and misery had suddenly wasted the bloom upon her cheek, and given to the large, cow-like eyes an expression of child-like hopelessness. An apathy had settled upon his nerves. He saw things as in a dream. His brain worked swiftly, but everything that passed before his eyes was, as it were, in a kaleidoscope, vivid and glowing, but yet intangible. His brain told him that here before him was a woman into whose life he had brought its first ordeal and humiliation. But his heart only felt a reflective sort of pity: it was not a personal or immediate realisation, that is, not at first.

He was scarcely conscious that he stood and looked at her for quite two minutes, without motion or speech on the part of either; but the dumb, desolate look in her eyes--a look of appeal, astonishment, horror and shame combined, presently clarified his senses, and he slowly grew to look at her as at his punishment, the punishment of his life. Before --always before--Sophie had been vague and indistinct: seen to-day, forgotten tomorrow; and previous to meeting her scores had affected his senses, affected them not at all deeply.

She was like a date in history to a boy who remembers that it meant something, but what, is not quite sure. But the meaning and definiteness were his own. Out of the irresponsibility of his nature, out of the moral ineptitude to which he had been born, moral knowledge came to him at last. Love had not done it; neither the love of Christine, as strong as death, nor the love of his sister, the deepest thing he ever knew--but the look of a woman wronged. He had inflicted on her the deepest wrong that may be done a woman. A woman can forgive passion and ruin, and worse, if the man loves her, and she can forgive herself, remembering that to her who loved much, much was forgiven. But out of wilful idleness, the mere flattery of the senses, a vampire feeding upon the spirits and souls of others, for nothing save emotion for emotion's sake --that was shameless, it was the last humiliation of a woman. As it were, to lose joy, and glow, and fervour of young, sincere and healthy life, to whip up the dying vitality and morbid brain of a consumptive!

All in a flash he saw it, realised it, and hated himself for it. He knew that as long as he lived, an hour or ten years, he never could redeem himself; never could forgive himself, and never buy back the life that he had injured. Many a time in his life he had kissed and ridden away, and had been unannoyed by conscience. But in proportion as conscience had neglected him before, it ground him now between the stones, and he saw himself as he was. Come of a gentleman's family, he knew he was no gentleman. Having learned the forms and courtesies of life, having infused his whole career with a spirit of gay bonhomie, he knew that in truth he was a swaggerer; that bad taste, infamous bad taste, had marked almost everything that he had done in his life. He had passed as one of the nobility, but he knew that all true men, all he had ever met, must have read him through and through. He had understood this before to a certain point, had read himself to a certain mark of gauge, but he had never been honestly and truly a man until this moment. His soul was naked before his eyes. It had been naked before, but he had laughed. Born without real remorse, he felt it at last. The true thing started within him. God, the avenger, the revealer and the healer, had held up this woman as a glass to him that he might see himself.

He saw her as she had been, a docile, soft-eyed girl, untouched by anything that defames or shames, and all in a moment the man that had never been in him until now, from the time he laughed first into his mother's eyes as a babe, spoke out as simply as a child would have spoken, and told the truth. There were no ameliorating phrases to soften it to her ears; there was no tact, there was no blarney, there was no suave suggestion now, no cheap gaiety, no cynicism of the social vampire --only the direct statement of a self-reproachful, dying man.

"I didn't fully know what I was doing," he said to her. "If I had understood then as I do now, I would never have come near you. It was the worst wickedness I ever did."

The new note in his voice, the new fashion of his words, the new look of his eyes, startled her, confused her. She could scarcely believe he was the same man. The dumb desolation lifted a little, and a look of under standing seemed to pierce her tragic apathy. As if a current of thought had been suddenly sent through her, she drew herself up with a little shiver, and looked at him as if she were about to speak; but instead of doing so, a strange, unhappy smile passed across her lips.

He saw that all the goodness of her nature was trying to arouse itself and assure him of forgiveness. It did not deceive him in the least.

"I won't be so mean now as to say I was weak," he added. "I was not weak; I was bad. I always felt I was born a liar and a thief. I've lied to myself all my life; and I've lied to other people because I never was a true man."

"A thief!" she said at last, scarcely above a whisper, and looking at him with a flash of horror in her eyes. "A thief!"

It was no use; he could not allow her to think he meant a thief in the vulgar, common sense, though that was what he was: just a common criminal.

"I have stolen the kind thoughts and love of people to whom I gave nothing in return," he said steadily. "There is nothing good in me. I used to think I was good-natured; but I was not, or I wouldn't have brought misery to a girl like you."

His truth broke down the barriers of her anger and despair. Something welled up in her heart: it may have been love, it may have been inherent womanliness.

"Why did you marry Christine?" she asked.

All at once he saw that she never could quite understand. Her stand- point would still, in the end, be the stand-point of a woman. He saw that she would have forgiven him, even had he not loved her, if he had not married Christine. For the first time he knew something, the real something, of a woman's heart. He had never known it before, because he had been so false himself. He might have been evil and had a conscience too; then he would have been wise. But he had been evil, and had had no conscience or moral mentor from the beginning; so he had never known anything real in his life. He thought he had known Christine, but now he saw her in a new light, through the eyes of her sister from whose heart he had gathered a harvest of passion and affection, and had burnt the stubble and seared the soil forever. Sophie could never justify herself in the eyes of her husband, or in her own eyes, because this man did not love her. Even as he stood before her there, declaring himself to her as wilfully wicked in all that he had said and done, she still longed passionately for the thing that was denied her: not her lost truth back, but the love that would have compensated for her suffering, and in some poor sense have justified her in years to come. She did not put it into words, but the thought was bluntly in her mind. She looked at him, and her eyes filled with tears, which dropped down her cheek to the ground.

He was about to answer her question, when, all at once, her honest eyes looked into his mournfully, and she said with an incredible pathos and simplicity:

"I don't know how I am going to live on with Magon. I suppose I'll have to keep pretending till I die!"

The bell in the church was ringing for vespers. It sounded peaceful and quiet, as though no war, or rebellion, or misery and shame, were anywhere within the radius of its travel.

Just where they stood there was a tall calvary. Behind it was some shrubbery. Ferrol was going to answer her, when he saw, coming along the road, the Cure in his robes, bearing the host. In front of him trotted an acolyte, swinging the censer.

Ferrol quickly drew Sophie aside behind the bushes, where they should not be seen; for he was no longer reckless. He wished to be careful for the woman's sake.

The Curb did not turn his head to the right or left, but came along chanting something slowly. The smell of the incense floated past them. When the priest and the lad reached the calvary they turned towards it, bowed, crossed themselves, and the lad rang a little silver bell. Then the two passed on, the lad still ringing. When they were out of sight the sound of the bell came softly, softly up the road, while the bell in the church tower still called to prayer.

The words the priest chanted seemed to ring through the air after he had gone.

              "God have mercy upon the passing soul!
               God have mercy upon the passing soul!
               Hear the prayer of the sinner, O Lord;
               Listen to the voice of those that mourn;
               Have mercy upon the sinner, O Lord!"

When Ferrol turned to Sophie again, both her hands were clasping the calvary, and she had dropped her head upon them.

"I must go," he said. She did not move.

Again he spoke to her; but she did not lift her head. Presently, however, as he stood watching her, she moved away from the calvary, and, with her back still turned to him, stepped out into the road and hurried on towards her home, never once turning her head.

He stood looking after her for a moment, then turned and, sitting on a log behind the shrubbery, he tore a few pieces of paper out of a note- book and began writing. He wrote swiftly for about twenty minutes or more, then, arising, he moved on towards the village, where crowds had gathered--excited, fearful, tumultuous; for the British soldiers had just entered the place.

Ferrol seemed almost oblivious of the threatening crowd, which once or twice jostled him more than was accidental. He came into the post- office, got an envelope, put his letter inside it, stamped it, addressed it to Christine, and dropped it into the letter-box.