The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins
Part I. Paradise Lost
Chapter II. The Bride's Thoughts.
WE had been traveling for a little more than an hour when a change passed insensibly over us both.
Still sitting close together, with my hand in his, with my head on his shoulder, little by little we fell insensibly into silence. Had we already exhausted the narrow yet eloquent vocabulary of love? Or had we determined by unexpressed consent, after enjoying the luxury of passion that speaks, to try the deeper and finer rapture of passion that thinks? I can hardly determine; I only know that a time came when, under some strange influence, our lips were closed toward each other. We traveled along, each of us absorbed in our own reverie. Was he thinking exclusively of me--as I was thinking exclusively of him? Before the journey's end I had my doubts; at a little later time I knew for certain that his thoughts, wandering far away from his young wife, were all turned inward on his own unhappy self.
For me the secret pleasure of filling my mind with him, while I felt him by my side, was a luxury in itself.
I pictured in my thoughts our first meeting in the neighborhood of my uncle's house.
Our famous north-country trout stream wound its flashing and foaming way through a ravine in the rocky moorland. It was a windy, shadowy evening. A heavily clouded sunset lay low and red in the west. A solitary angler stood casting his fly at a turn in the stream where the backwater lay still and deep under an overhanging bank. A girl (myself) standing on the bank, invisible to the fisherman beneath, waited eagerly to see the trout rise.
The moment came; the fish took the fly.
Sometimes on the little level strip of sand at the foot of the bank, sometimes (when the stream turned again) in the shallower water rushing over its rocky bed, the angler followed the captured trout, now letting the line run out and now winding it in again, in the difficult and delicate process of "playing" the fish. Along the bank I followed to watch the contest of skill and cunning between the man and the trout. I had lived long enough with my uncle Starkweather to catch some of his enthusiasm for field sports, and to learn something, especially, of the angler's art. Still following the stranger, with my eyes intently fixed on every movement of his rod and line, and with not so much as a chance fragment of my attention to spare for the rough path along which I was walking, I stepped by chance on the loose overhanging earth at the edge of the bank, and fell into the stream in an instant.
The distance was trifling, the water was shallow, the bed of the river was (fortunately for me) of sand. Beyond the fright and the wetting I had nothing to complain of. In a few moments I was out of the water and up again, very much ashamed of myself, on the firm ground. Short as the interval was, it proved long enough to favor the escape of the fish. The angler had heard my first instinctive cry of alarm, had turned, and had thrown aside his rod to help me. We confronted each other for the first time, I on the bank and he in the shallow water below. Our eyes encountered, and I verily believe our hearts encountered at the same moment. This I know for certain, we forgot our breeding as lady and gentleman: we looked at each other in barbarous silence.
I was the first to recover myself. What did I say to him?
I said something about my not being hurt, and then something more, urging him to run back and try if he might not yet recover the fish.
He went back unwillingly. He returned to me--of course without the fish. Knowing how bitterly disappointed my uncle would have been in his place, I apologized very earnestly. In my eagerness to make atonement, I even offered to show him a spot where he might try again, lower down the stream.
He would not hear of it; he entreated me to go home and change my wet dress. I cared nothing for the wetting, but I obeyed him without knowing why.
He walked with me. My way back to the Vicarage was his way back to the inn. He had come to our parts, he told me, for the quiet and retirement as much as for the fishing. He had noticed me once or twice from the window of his room at the inn. He asked if I were not the vicar's daughter.
I set him right. I told him that the vicar had married my mother's sister, and that the two had been father and mother to me since the death of my parents. He asked if he might venture to call on Doctor Starkweather the next day, mentioning the name of a friend of his, with whom he believed the vicar to be acquainted. I invited him to visit us, as if it had been my house; I was spell-bound under his eyes and under his voice. I had fancied, honestly fancied, myself to have been in love often and often before this time. Never in any other man's company had I felt as I now felt in the presence of this man. Night seemed to fall suddenly over the evening landscape when he left me. I leaned against the Vic arage gate. I could not breathe, I could not think; my heart fluttered as if it would fly out of my bosom--and all this for a stranger! I burned with shame; but oh, in spite of it all, I was so happy!
And now, when little more than a few weeks had passed since that first meeting, I had him by my side; he was mine for life! I lifted my head from his bosom to look at him. I was like a child with a new toy--I wanted to make sure that he was really my own.
He never noticed the action; he never moved in his corner of the carriage. Was he deep in his own thoughts? and were they thoughts of Me?
I laid down my head again softly, so as not to disturb him. My thoughts wandered backward once more, and showed me another picture in the golden gallery of the past.
The garden at the Vicarage formed the new scene. The time was night. We had met together in secret. We were walking slowly to and fro, out of sight of the house, now in the shadowy paths of the shrubbery, now in the lovely moonlight on the open lawn.
We had long since owned our love and devoted our lives to each other. Already our interests were one; already we shared the pleasures and the pains of life. I had gone out to meet him that night with a heavy heart, to seek comfort in his presence and to find encouragement in his voice. He noticed that I sighed when he first took me in his arms, and he gently turned my head toward the moonlight to read my trouble in my face. How often he had read my happiness there in the earlier days of our love!
"You bring bad news, my angel," he said, lifting my hair tenderly from my forehead as he spoke. "I see the lines here which tell me of anxiety and distress. I almost wish I loved you less dearly, Valeria."
"I might give you back your freedom. I have only to leave this place, and your uncle would be satisfied, and you would be relieved from all the cares that are pressing on you now."
"Don't speak of it, Eustace! If you want me to forget my cares, say you love me more dearly than ever."
He said it in a kiss. We had a moment of exquisite forgetfulness of the hard ways of life--a moment of delicious absorption in each other. I came back to realities fortified and composed, rewarded for all that I had gone through, ready to go through it all over again for another kiss. Only give a woman love, and there is nothing she will not venture, suffer, and do.
"No, they have done with objecting. They have remembered at last that I am of age, and that I can choose for myself. They have been pleading with me, Eustace, to give you up. My aunt, whom I thought rather a hard woman, has been crying--for the first time in my experience of her. My uncle, always kind and good to me, has been kinder and better than ever. He has told me that if I persist in becoming your wife, I shall not be deserted on my wedding-day. Wherever we may marry, he will be there to read the service, and my aunt will go to the church with me. But he entreats me to consider seriously what I am doing--to consent to a separation from you for a time--to consult other people on my position toward you, if I am not satisfied with his opinion. Oh, my darling, they are as anxious to part us as if you were the worst instead of the best of men!"
"Has anything happened since yesterday to increase their distrust of me?" he asked.
"What is it?"
"You remember referring my uncle to a friend of yours and of his?"
"Yes. To Major Fitz-David."
"My uncle has written to Major Fitz-David "
He pronounced that one word in a tone so utterly unlike his natural tone that his voice sounded quite strange to me.
"You won't be angry, Eustace, if I tell you?" I said. "My uncle, as I understood him, had several motives for writing to the major. One of them was to inquire if he knew your mother's address."
Eustace suddenly stood still.
I paused at the same moment, feeling that I could venture no further without the risk of offending him.
To speak the truth, his conduct, when he first mentioned our engagement to my uncle, had been (so far as appearances went) a little flighty and strange. The vicar had naturally questioned him about his family. He had answered that his father was dead; and he had consented, though not very readily, to announce his contemplated marriage to his mother. Informing us that she too lived in the country, he had gone to see her, without more particularly mentioning her address. In two days he had returned to the Vicarage with a very startling message. His mother intended no disrespect to me or my relatives, but she disapproved so absolutely of her son's marriage that she (and the members of her family, who all agreed with her) would refuse to be present at the ceremony, if Mr. Woodville persisted in keeping his engagement with Dr. Starkweather's niece. Being asked to explain this extraordinary communication, Eustace had told us that his mother and his sisters were bent on his marrying another lady, and that they were bitterly mortified and disappointed by his choosing a stranger to the family. This explanation was enough for me; it implied, so far as I was concerned, a compliment to my superior influence over Eustace, which a woman always receives with pleasure. But it failed to satisfy my uncle and my aunt. The vicar expressed to Mr. Woodville a wish to write to his mother, or to see her, on the subject of her strange message. Eustace obstinately declined to mention his mother's address, on the ground that the vicar's interference would be utterly useless. My uncle at once drew the conclusion that the mystery about the address indicated something wrong. He refused to favor Mr. Woodville's renewed proposal for my hand, and he wrote the same day to make inquiries of Mr. Woodville's reference and of his own friend Major Fitz-David.
Under such circumstances as these, to speak of my uncle's motives was to venture on very delicate ground. Eustace relieved me from further embarrassment by asking a question to which I could easily reply.
"Has your uncle received any answer from Major Fitz-David?" he inquired.
"Were you allowed to read it?" His voice sank as he said those words; his face betrayed a sudden anxiety which it pained me to see.
"I have got the answer with me to show you," I said.
He almost snatched the letter out of my hand; he turned his back on me to read it by the light of the moon. The letter was short enough to be soon read. I could have repeated it at the time. I can repeat it now.
"DEAR VICAR--Mr. Eustace Woodville is quite correct in stating to you that he is a gentleman by birth and position, and that he inherits (under his deceased father's will) an independent fortune of two thousand a year.
"Can anybody wish for a plainer answer than that?" Eustace asked, handing the letter back to me.
"If I had written for information about you," I answered, "it would have been plain enough for me."
"Is it not plain enough for your uncle?"
"What does he say?"
"Why need you care to know, my darling?"
"I want to know, Valeria. There must be no secret between us in this matter. Did your uncle say anything when he showed you the major's letter?"
"What was it?"
"My uncle told me that his letter of inquiry filled three pages, and he bade me observe that the major's answer contained one sentence only. He said, 'I volunteered to go to Major Fitz-David and talk the matter over. You see he takes no notice of my proposal. I asked him for the address of Mr. Woodville's mother. He passes over my request, as he has passed over my proposal--he studiously confines himself to the shortest possible statement of bare facts. Use your common-sense, Valeria. Isn't this rudeness rather remarkable on the part of a man who is a gentleman by birth and breeding, and who is also a friend of mine?'"
Eustace stopped me there.
"Did you answer your uncle's question?" he asked.
"No," I replied. "I only said that I did not understand the major's conduct."
"And what did your uncle say next? If you love me, Valeria, tell me the truth."
"He used very stron g language, Eustace. He is an old man; you must not be offended with him."
"I am not offended. What did he say?"
"He said, 'Mark my words! There is something under the surface in connection with Mr. Woodville, or with his family, to which Major Fitz-David is not at liberty to allude. Properly interpreted, Valeria, that letter is a warning. Show it to Mr. Woodville, and tell him (if you like) what I have just told you--'"
Eustace stopped me again.
"You are sure your uncle said those words?" he asked, scanning my face attentively in the moonlight.
"Quite sure. But I don't say what my uncle says. Pray don't think that!"
He suddenly pressed me to his bosom, and fixed his eyes on mine. His look frightened me.
"Good-by, Valeria!" he said. "Try and think kindly of me, my darling, when you are married to some happier man."
He attempted to leave me. I clung to him in an agony of terror that shook me from head to foot.
"What do you mean?" I asked, as soon as I could speak. "I am yours and yours only. What have I said, what have I done, to deserve those dreadful words?"
"We must part, my angel," he answered, sadly. "The fault is none of yours; the misfortune is all mine. My Valeria! how can you marry a man who is an object of suspicion to your nearest and dearest friends? I have led a dreary life. I have never found in any other woman the sympathy with me, the sweet comfort and companionship, that I find in you. Oh, it is hard to lose you! it is hard to go back again to my unfriended life! I must make the sacrifice, love, for your sake. I know no more why that letter is what it is than you do. Will your uncle believe me? will your friends believe me? One last kiss, Valeria! Forgive me for having loved you--passionately, devotedly loved you. Forgive me--and let me go!"
I held him desperately, recklessly. His eyes, put me beside myself; his words filled me with a frenzy of despair.
"Go where you may," I said, "I go with you! Friends--reputation--I care nothing who I lose, or what I lose! Oh, Eustace, I am only a woman--don't madden me! I can't live without you. I must and will be your wife!"
Those wild words were all I could say before the misery and madness in me forced their way outward in a burst of sobs and tears.
He yielded. He soothed me with his charming voice; he brought me back to myself with his tender caresses. He called the bright heaven above us to witness that he devoted his whole life to me. He vowed--oh, in such solemn, such eloquent words!--that his one thought, night and day, should be to prove himself worthy of such love as mine. And had he not nobly redeemed the pledge? Had not the betrothal of that memorable night been followed by the betrothal at the altar, by the vows before God! Ah, what a life was before me! What more than mortal happiness was mine!
Again I lifted my head from his bosom to taste the dear delight of seeing him by my side--my life, my love, my husband, my own!
Hardly awakened yet from the absorbing memories of the past to the sweet realities of the present, I let my cheek touch his cheek, I whispered to him softly, "Oh, how I love you! how I love you!"
The next instant I started back from him. My heart stood still. I put my hand up to my face. What did I feel on my cheek? (I had not been weeping--I was too happy.) What did I feel on my cheek? A tear!
His face was still averted from me. I turned it toward me, with my own hands, by main force.
I looked at him--and saw my husband, on our wedding-day, with his eyes full of tears.