The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter XXXVII. Forbidden
December was half through, and it was the eve of Maud Enderby's marriage-day. Everything was ready for the morrow. Waymark had been away in the South, and the house to which he would take his wife now awaited their coming.
It was a foggy night. Maud had been for an hour to Our Lady of the Rosary, and found it difficult to make her way back. The street lamps were mere luminous blurs upon the clinging darkness, and the suspension of the wonted traffic made the air strangely still. It was cold, that kind of cold which wraps the limbs like a cloth soaked in icy water. When she knocked at the door of her aunt's house, and it was opened to her, wreaths of mist swept in and hung about the lighted hall. It seemed colder within than without. Footsteps echoed here in the old way, and voices lost themselves in a muffled resonance along the bare white walls. The house was more tomb-like than ever on such a night as thin To Maud's eyes the intruding fog shaped itself into ghostly visages, which looked upon her with weird and woeful compassion. She shuddered, and hastened upstairs to her mother's room.
After her husband's disappearance, Mrs. Enderby had passed her days in a morbid apathy, contrasting strangely with the restless excitement which had so long possessed her. But a change came over her from the day when she was told of Maud's approaching marriage. It was her delight to have Maud sit by her bed, or her couch, and talk over the details of the wedding and the new life that would follow upon it. Her interest in Waymark, which had fallen off during the past half-year, all at once revived; she conversed with him as she had been used to do when she first made his acquaintance, and the publication of his book afforded her endless matter for gossip. She began to speak of herself as an old woman, and of spending her last years happily in the country. To all appearances she had dismissed from her mind the calamity which had befallen her; her husband might have been long dead for any thought she seemed to give him. She was wholly taken up with childish joy in trivial matters. The dress in which Maud should be married gave her thoughts constant occupation, and she fretted at any opposition to her ideas. Still, like a child, she allowed herself to be brought round to others' views, and was ultimately led to consent that the costume should be a very simple one, merely a new dress, in fact, which Maud would be able to wear subsequently with little change. Even thus, every detail of it was as important to her as if it had been the most elaborate piece of bridal attire. In talking with Maud, too, she had lost that kind of awe which had formerly restrained her; it was as though she had been an affectionate mother ever since her daughter's birth. She called her by pet names, often caressed her, and wished for loving words and acts in return. Of Miss Bygrave's presence in the house she appeared scarcely conscious, never referring to her, and suffering a vague trouble if her sister entered the room where she was, which Theresa did very seldom.
The new dress had come home finished this evening whilst Maud was away. On the latter's return, her mother insisted on seeing her at once in it, and Maud obeyed. A strange bride, rather as one who was about to wed herself to Heaven beneath the veil, than preparing to be led to the altar.
Having resumed her ordinary dregs, Maud went downstairs to the parlour where her aunt was sitting. Miss Bygrave laid down a book as she entered.
"We shall not see each other after tonight," Theresa said, breaking the stillness with her grave but not unkind voice. "Is there anything more you would like to say to me, Maud?"
"Only that I shall always think of you, and grieve that we are parted."
"You are going into the world," said the other sadly, "my thoughts cannot follow you there. But your purer spirit will often be with me."
"And your spirit with me. If I had been permitted to share your life, that would have been my greatest joy. I am consciously choosing what my soul would set aside. For a time I thought I had reconciled myself to the world; I found delight in it, and came to look on the promptings of the spirit as morbid fancies. That has passed. I know the highest, but between me and it there is a gulf which it may be I shall never pass."
"It is only to few," said Theresa, looking at Maud with her smile of assured peace, "that it is given to persevere and attain."
As they sat once more in silence, there suddenly came a light knock at the house-door. At this moment Maud's thoughts had wandered back to a Christmas of her childhood, when she had sat just as to-night with her aunt, and had for the first time listened to those teachings which had moulded her life. The intervening years were swept away, and she was once more the thoughtful, wondering child, conscious of the great difference between herself and her companions; in spite of herself learning to regard the world in which they moved as something in which she had no part. Of those school companions a few came back to her mind, and, before all, the poor girl named Ida Starr, whom she had loved and admired. What had become of Ida, after she had been sent away from Miss Rutherford's school? She remembered that last meeting with her in the street, on the evening of Christmas Day, and could see her face.
The house door was opened, and Maud heard a voice outside which held her to the spot where she stood. Then Theresa re-entered the room, and after her came Paul Enderby.
He seemed to be wearing a disguise; at all events his clothing was that of a working man, poor and worn, and his face was changed by the growth of a beard. He shivered with cold, and, as Miss Bygrave closed the door behind him, stood with eyes sunk to the ground, in an attitude of misery and shame. Maud, recovering quickly from the shock his entrance had caused her, approached him and took his hand.
"Father," she said gently. Her voice overcame him; he burst into tears and stood hiding his face with the rough cap he held. Maud turned to her aunt, who remained at a little distance, unmoving, her eyes cast down. Before any other word was said, the door opened quickly, and Mrs. Enderby ran in with a smothered cry. Throwing her arms about her husband, she clung to him in a passion of grief and tenderness. In a moment she had been changed from the listless, childish woman of the last few months to a creature instinct with violent emotion. Her mingled excess of joy and anguish could not have displayed itself more vehemently had she been sorrowing night and day for her husband's loss. Maud was terrified at the scene, and shrunk to Theresa's side. Without heeding either, the distracted woman led Paul from the room, and upstairs to her own chamber. Drawing him to a chair, she fell on her knees beside him and wept agonisingly.
"You will stay with me now?" she cried, when her voice could form words. "You won't leave me again, Paul? We will hide you here.-- No, no; I am for getting. You will go away with us, away from London to a safe place. Maud is going to be married to-morrow, and we will live with her in her new home. You have suffered dreadfully; you look so changed, so ill. You shall rest, and I will nurse you. Oh, I will be a good wife to you, Paul. Speak to me, do speak to me: speak kindly, dear! How long is it since I lost you?"
"I daren't stay, Emily," he replied, in a hoarse and broken voice. "I should be discovered. I must get away from England, that is my only chance. I have scarcely left the house where I was hiding all this time. It wouldn't have been safe to try and escape, even if I had had any money. I have hungered for days, and I am weaker than a child."
He sobbed again in the extremity of his wretchedness.
"It was all for my sake!" she cried, clinging around his neck. "I am your curse. I have brought you to ruin a second time. I am a bad, wretched woman; if you drove me from you with blows it would be less than I deserve! You can never forgive me; but let me be your slave, let me suffer something dreadful for your sake! Why did I ever recover from my madness, only to bring that upon you!"
He could speak little, but leaned back, holding her to him with one arm.
"No, it is not your fault, Emily," he said. "Only my own weakness and folly. Your love repays me for all I have undergone; that was all I ever wanted."
When she had exhausted herself in passionate consolation, she left him for a few moments to get him food, and he ate of it like a famished man.
"If I can only get money enough to leave the country, I am saved," he said. "If I stay here, I shall be found, and they will imprison me for years. I had rather kill myself!
"Mr. Waymark will give us the money," was the reply, "and we will go away together."
"That would betray me; it would be folly to face such a risk. If I can escape, then you shall come to me."
"Oh, you will leave me!" she cried. "I shall lose you, as I did before, but this time for ever! You don't love me, Paul! And how can I expect you should? But let me go as your servant. Let me dress like a man, and follow you. Who will notice then?"
He shook his head.
"I love you, Emily, and shall love you as long as I breathe. To hear you speak to me like this has almost the power to make me happy. If I had known it, I shouldn't have stayed so long away from you; I hadn't the courage to come, and I thought the sight of me would only be misery to you. I have lived a terrible life, among the poorest people, getting my bread as they did; oftener starving. Not one of my acquaintances was to be trusted. I have not seen one face I knew since I first heard of my danger and escaped. But I had rather live on like that than fall into the hands of the police; I should never know freedom again. The thought maddens me with fear."
"You are safe here, love, quite safe!" she urged soothingly. "Who could know that you are here? Who could know that Maud and I were living here?"
There was a tap at the door. Mrs. Enderby started to it, turned the key, and then asked who was there.
"Emily," said Miss Bygrave's voice, "let me come in--or let Paul come out here and speak to me."
There was something unusual in the speaker's tone; it was quick and nervous. Paul himself went to the door, and, putting his wife's hand aside, opened it.
"What is it?" he asked.
She beckoned him to leave the room, then whispered:
"Some one I don't know is at the front door. I opened it with the chain on, and a man said he must see Mr. Enderby."
"Can't I go out by the back?" Paul asked, all but voiceless with terror. "I daren't hide in the rooms; they will search them all. How did they know that I was here? O God, I am lost!"
They could hear the knocking below repeated. Paul hurried down the stairs, followed by his wife, whom Theresa in vain tried to hold back He knew the way to the door which led into the garden, and opening this, sprang into the darkness. Scarcely had he taken a step, when strong arms seized him.
"Hold on!" said a voice. "You must come back with me into the house."
At the same moment there was a shriek close at hand, and, as they turned to the open door, Paul and his captor saw Emily prostrate on the threshold, and Miss Bygrave stooping over her.
"Better open the front door, ma'am," said the police officer, "and ask my friend there to come through. We've got all we want."
This was done, and when Emily had been carried into the house, Paul was led thither also by his captor. As they stood in the hall, the second officer drew from his pocket a warrant, and read it out with official gravity.
"You'll go quietly with us, I suppose?" he then said.
Paul nodded, and all three departed by the front door.
It was midnight and before Mrs. Enderby showed any signs of returning consciousness. Miss Bygrave and Maud sat by her bed together, and at length one of them noticed that she had opened her eyes and was looking about her, though without moving her head.
"Mother," Maud asked, bending over her, "are you better? Do you know me?"
Emily nodded. There was no touch of natural colour in her face, and its muscles seemed paralysed. And she lay thus for hours, conscious apparently, but paying no attention to those in the room. Early in the morning a medical man was summoned, but his assistance made no change. The fog was still heavy, and only towards noon was it possible to dispense with lamp-light; then there gleamed for an hour or two a weird mockery of day, and again it was nightfall. With the darkness came rain.
Waymark had come to the house about ten o'clock. But this was to be no wedding-day. Maud begged him through her aunt not to see her, and he returned as he came. Miss Bygrave had told him all that had happened.
Mrs. Enderby seemed to sleep for some hours, but just after nightfall the previous condition returned; she lay with her eyes open, and just nodded when spoken to. From eight o'clock to midnight Maud tried to rest in her own room, but sleep was far from her, and when she returned to the sick-chamber to relieve her aunt, she was almost as worn and ghastly in countenance as the one they tended. She took her place by the fire, and sat listening to the sad rain, which fell heavily upon the soaked garden-ground below. It had a lulling effect. Weariness overcame her, and before she could suspect the inclination, she had fallen asleep.
Suddenly she was awake again, wide awake, it seemed to her, without any interval of half-consciousness, and staring horror-struck at the scene before her. The shaded lamp stood on the chest of drawers at one side of the room, and by its light she saw her mother in front of the looking-glass, her raised hand holding something that glistened. She could not move a limb; her tongue was powerless to utter a sound. There was a wild laugh, a quick motion of the raised hand--then it seemed to Maud as if the room were filled with a crimson light, followed by the eternal darkness.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A fortnight later Miss Bygrave was sitting in the early morning by the bed where Maud lay ill. For some days it had been feared that the girl's reason would fail, and though this worst possibility seemed at length averted, her condition was still full of danger. She had recognised her aunt the preceding evening, but a relapse had followed. Now she unexpectedly turned to the watcher, and spoke feebly, but with perfect self-control.
"Aunt, is madness hereditary?"
Miss Bygrave, who had thought her asleep, bent over her and tried to turn her mind to other thoughts. But the sick girl would speak only of this subject.
"I am quite myself," she said, "and I feel better. Yes, I remember reading somewhere that it was hereditary."
She was quiet for a little.
"Aunt," she then said, "I shall never be married. It would be wrong to him. I am afraid of myself."
She did not recur to the subject till she had risen, two or three weeks after, and was strong enough to move about the room. Waymark had called every day during her illness. As soon as he heard that she was up, he desired to see her, but Maud begged him, through her aunt, to wait yet a day or two. In the night which followed she wrote to him, and the letter was this:
"If I had seen you when you called yesterday, I should have had to face a task beyond my strength. Yet it would be wrong to keep from you any longer what I have to say. I must write it, and hope your knowledge of me will help you to understand what I can only imperfectly express.
"I ask you to let me break my promise to you. I have not ceased to love you; to me you are still all that is best and dearest in the world. You would have made my life very happy. But happiness is now what I dare not wish for. I am too weak to make that use of it which, I do not doubt, is permitted us; it would enslave my soul. With a nature such as mine, there is only one path of safety: I must renounce all. You know me to be no hypocrite, and to you, in this moment, I need not fear to speak my whole thought, The sacrifice has cost me much To break my faith to you, and to put aside for ever all the world's joys--the strength for this has only come after hours of bitterest striving. Try to be glad that I have won; it is all behind me, and I stand upon the threshold of peace.
"You know how from a child I have suffered. What to others was pure and lawful joy became to me a temptation. But God was not unjust; if He so framed me, He gave me at the same time the power to understand and to choose. All those warnings which I have, in my blindness, spoken of so lightly to you, I now recall with humbler and truer mind. If the shadow of sin darkened my path, it was that I might look well to my steps, and, alas, I have failed so, have gone so grievously astray! God, in His righteous anger, has terribly visited me. The most fearful form of death has risen before me; I have been cast into abysses of horror, and only saved from frenzy by the mercy which brought all this upon me for my good. A few months ago I had also a warning. I did not disregard it, but I could not overcome the love which bound me to you. But for that love, how much easier it would have been to me to overcome the world and myself.
"You will forgive me, for you will understand me. Do not write in
reply; spare me, I entreat you, a renewal of that dark hour I have
passed through. With my aunt I am going to leave London. We shall
remain together, and she will strengthen me in the new life. May God
bless you here and hereafter.
After an interval of a day Waymark wrote as follows to Miss Bygrave:--
"Doubtless you know that Maud has written desiring me to release her. I cannot but remember that she is scarcely yet recovered from a severe illness, and her letter must not be final. She entreats me not to write to her or see her. Accordingly I address myself to you, and beg that you will not allow Maud to take any irrevocable step till she is perfectly well, and has had time to reflect. I shall still deem her promise to me binding. If after the lapse of six months from now she still desires to be released, I must know it, either from herself or from you. Write to me at the old address."