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William Wilkie Collins (8 January 1824 – 23 September 1889) was an English novelist, playwright, and short story writer. His best-known works are The Woman in White (1859), No Name (1862), Armadale (1866) and The Moonstone (1868). The last is considered the first modern English detective novel. Born into the family of painter William Collins in London, he lived with his family in Italy and France as a child and learned French and Italian. He worked as a clerk for a tea merchant. After his first novel, Antonina, was published in 1850, he met Charles Dickens, who became a close friend, mentor and collaborator. Some of Collins's works were first published in Dickens' journals All the Year Round and Household Words and the two collaborated on drama and fiction. Collins published his best known works in the 1860s and achieved financial stability and an international reputation. During that time he began suffering from gout. After taking opium for the pain, he developed an addiction. During the 1870s and 1880s the quality of his writing declined along with his health.
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The Two Destinies
THE GUEST WRITES AND TELLS THE STORY OF THE DINNER PARTY.
MANY years have passed since my wife and I left the United States to pay our first visit to England.
We were provided with letters of introduction, as a matter of course. Among them there was a letter which had been written for us by my wife’s brother. It presented us to an English gentleman who held a high rank on the list of his old and valued friends.
“You will become acquainted with Mr. George Germaine,” my brother-in-law said, when we took leave of him, “at a very interesting period of his life. My last news of him tells me that he is just married. I know nothing of the lady, or of the circumstances under which my friend first met with her. But of this I am certain: married or single, George Germaine will give you and your wife a hearty welcome to England, for my sake.”
The day after our arrival in London, we left our letter of introduction at the house of Mr. Germaine.
The next morning we went to see a favorite object of American interest, in the metropolis of England—the Tower of London. The citizens of the United States find this relic of the good old times of great use in raising their national estimate of the value of republican institutions. On getting back to the hotel, the cards of Mr. and Mrs. Germaine told us that they had already returned our visit. The same evening we received an invitation to dine with the newly married couple. It was inclosed in a little note from Mrs. Germaine to my wife, warning us that we were not to expect to meet a large party. “It is the first dinner we give, on our return from our wedding tour” (the lady wrote); “and you will only be introduced to a few of my husband’s old friends.”
In America, and (as I hear) on the continent of Europe also, when your host invites you to dine at a given hour, you pay him the compliment of arriving punctually at his house. In England alone, the incomprehensible and discourteous custom prevails of keeping the host and the dinner waiting for half an hour or more—without any assignable reason and without any better excuse than the purely formal apology that is implied in the words, “Sorry to be late.”
Arriving at the appointed time at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Germaine, we had every reason to congratulate ourselves on the ignorant punctuality which had brought us into the drawing-room half an hour in advance of the other guests.
In the first place, there was so much heartiness, and so little ceremony, in the welcome accorded to us, that we almost fancied ourselves back in our own country. In the second place, both husband and wife interested us the moment we set eyes on them. The lady, especially, although she was not, strictly speaking, a beautiful woman, quite fascinated us. There was an artless charm in her face and manner, a simple grace in all her movements, a low, delicious melody in her voice, which we Americans felt to be simply irresistible. And then, it was so plain (and so pleasant) to see that here at least was a happy marriage! Here were two people who had all their dearest hopes, wishes, and sympathies in common—who looked, if I may risk the expression, born to be man and wife. By the time when the fashionable delay of the half hour had expired, we were talking together as familiarly and as confidentially as if we had been all four of us old friends.
Eight o’clock struck, and the first of the English guests appeared.
Having forgotten this gentleman’s name, I must beg leave to distinguish him by means of a letter of the alphabet. Let me call him Mr. A. When he entered the room alone, our host and hostess both started, and both looked surprised. Apparently they expected him to be accompanied by some other person. Mr. Germaine put a curious question to his friend.
“Where is your wife?” he asked.
Mr. A answered for the absent lady by a neat little apology, expressed in these words:
“She has got a bad cold. She is very sorry. She begs me to make her excuses.”
He had just time to deliver his message, before another unaccompanied gentleman appeared. Reverting to the letters of the alphabet, let me call him Mr. B. Once more, I noticed that our host and hostess started when they saw him enter the room alone. And, rather to my surprise, I heard Mr. Germaine put his curious question again to the new guest:
“Where is your wife?”
The answer—with slight variations—was Mr. A’s neat little apology, repeated by Mr. B.
“I am very sorry. Mrs. B has got a bad headache. She is subject to bad headaches. She begs me to make her excuses.”
Mr. and Mrs. Germaine glanced at one another. The husband’s face plainly expressed the suspicion which this second apology had roused in his mind. The wife was steady and calm. An interval passed—a silent interval. Mr. A and Mr. B retired together guiltily into a corner. My wife and I looked at the pictures.
Mrs. Germaine was the first to relieve us from our own intolerable silence. Two more guests, it appeared, were still wanting to complete the party. “Shall we have dinner at once, George?” she said to her husband. “Or shall we wait for Mr. and Mrs. C?”
“We will wait five minutes,” he answered, shortly—with his eye on Mr. A and Mr. B, guiltily secluded in their corner.
The drawing-room door opened. We all knew that a third married lady was expected; we all looked toward the door in unutterable anticipation. Our unexpressed hopes rested silently on the possible appearance of Mrs. C. Would that admirable, but unknown, woman, at once charm and relieve us by her presence? I shudder as I write it. Mr. C walked into the room—and walked in, alone.
Mr. Germaine suddenly varied his formal inquiry in receiving the new guest.
“Is your wife ill?” he asked.
Mr. C was an elderly man; Mr. C had lived (judging by appearances) in the days when the old-fashioned laws of politeness were still in force. He discovered his two married brethren in their corner, unaccompanied by their wives; and he delivered his apology for his wife with the air of a man who felt unaffectedly ashamed of it:
“Mrs. C is so sorry. She has got such a bad cold. She does so regret not being able to accompany me.”
At this third apology, Mr. Germaine’s indignation forced its way outward into expression in words.
“Two bad colds and one bad headache,” he said, with ironical politeness. “I don’t know how your wives agree, gentlemen, when they are well. But when they are ill, their unanimity is wonderful!”
The dinner was announced as that sharp saying passed his lips.
I had the honor of taking Mrs. Germaine to the dining-room. Her sense of the implied insult offered to her by the wives of her husband’s friends only showed itself in a trembling, a very slight trembling, of the hand that rested on my arm. My interest in her increased tenfold. Only a woman who had been accustomed to suffer, who had been broken and disciplined to self-restraint, could have endured the moral martyrdom inflicted on her as this woman endured it, from the beginning of the evening to the end.
Am I using the language of exaggeration when I write of my hostess in these terms? Look at the circumstances as they struck two strangers like my wife and myself.
Here was the first dinner party which Mr. and Mrs. Germaine had given since their marriage. Three of Mr. Germaine’s friends, all married men, had been invited with their wives to meet Mr. Germaine’s wife, and had (evidently) accepted the invitation without reserve. What discoveries had taken place between the giving of the invitation and the giving of the dinner it was impossible to say. The one thing plainly discernible was, that in the interval the three wives had agreed in the resolution to leave their husbands to represent them at Mrs. Germaine’s table; and, more amazing still, the husbands had so far approved of the grossly discourteous conduct of the wives as to consent to make the most insultingly trivial excuses for their absence. Could any crueler slur than this have been cast on a woman at the outs et of her married life, before the face of her husband, and in the presence of two strangers from another country? Is “martyrdom” too big a word to use in describing what a sensitive person must have suffered, subjected to such treatment as this? Well, I think not.
We took our places at the dinner-table. Don’t ask me to describe that most miserable of mortal meetings, that weariest and dreariest of human festivals! It is quite bad enough to remember that evening—it is indeed.
My wife and I did our best to keep the conversation moving as easily and as harmlessly as might be. I may say that we really worked hard. Nevertheless, our success was not very encouraging. Try as we might to overlook them, there were the three empty places of the three absent women, speaking in their own dismal language for themselves. Try as we might to resist it, we all felt the one sad conclusion which those empty places persisted in forcing on our minds. It was surely too plain that some terrible report, affecting the character of the unhappy woman at the head of the table, had unexpectedly come to light, and had at one blow destroyed her position in the estimation of her husband’s friends. In the face of the excuses in the drawing-room, in the face of the empty places at the dinner-table, what could the friendliest guests do, to any good purpose, to help the husband and wife in their sore and sudden need? They could say good-night at the earliest possible opportunity, and mercifully leave the married pair to themselves.
Let it at least be recorded to the credit of the three gentlemen, designated in these pages as A, B, and C, that they were sufficiently ashamed of themselves and their wives to be the first members of the dinner party who left the house. In a few minutes more we rose to follow their example. Mrs. Germaine earnestly requested that we would delay our departure.
“Wait a few minutes,” she whispered, with a glance at her husband. “I have something to say to you before you go.”
She left us, and, taking Mr. Germaine by the arm, led him away to the opposite side of the room. The two held a little colloquy together in low voices. The husband closed the consultation by lifting the wife’s hand to his lips.
“Do as you please, my love,” he said to her. “I leave it entirely to you.”
He sat down sorrowfully, lost in his thoughts. Mrs. Germaine unlocked a cabinet at the further end of the room, and returned to us, alone, carrying a small portfolio in her hand.
“No words of mine can tell you how gratefully I feel your kindness,” she said, with perfect simplicity, and with perfect dignity at the same time. “Under very trying circumstances, you have treated me with the tenderness and the sympathy which you might have shown to an old friend. The one return I can make for all that I owe to you is to admit you to my fullest confidence, and to leave you to judge for yourselves whether I deserve the treatment which I have received to-night.”
Her eyes filled with tears. She paused to control herself. We both begged her to say no more. Her husband, joining us, added his entreaties to ours. She thanked us, but she persisted. Like most sensitively organized persons, she could be resolute when she believed that the occasion called for it.
“I have a few words more to say,” she resumed, addressing my wife. “You are the only married woman who has come to our little dinner party. The marked absence of the other wives explains itself. It is not for me to say whether they are right or wrong in refusing to sit at our table. My dear husband—who knows my whole life as well as I know it myself—expressed the wish that we should invite these ladies. He wrongly supposed that his estimate of me would be the estimate accepted by his friends; and neither he nor I anticipated that the misfortunes of my past life would be revealed by some person acquainted with them, whose treachery we have yet to discover. The least I can do, by way of acknowledging your kindness, is to place you in the same position toward me which the other ladies now occupy. The circumstances under which I have become the wife of Mr. Germaine are, in some respects, very remarkable. They are related, without suppression or reserve, in a little narrative which my husband wrote, at the time of our marriage, for the satisfaction of one of his absent relatives, whose good opinion he was unwilling to forfeit. The manuscript is in this portfolio. After what has happened, I ask you both to read it, as a personal favor to me. It is for you to decide, when you know all, whether I am a fit person for an honest woman to associate with or not.”
She held out her hand, with a sweet, sad smile, and bid us good night. My wife, in her impulsive way, forgot the formalities proper to the occasion, and kissed her at parting. At that one little act of sisterly sympathy, the fortitude which the poor creature had preserved all through the evening gave way in an instant. She burst into tears.
I felt as fond of her and as sorry for her as my wife. But (unfortunately) I could not take my wife’s privilege of kissing her. On our way downstairs, I found the opportunity of saying a cheering word to her husband as he accompanied us to the door.
“Before I open this,” I remarked, pointing to the portfolio under my arm, “my mind is made up, sir, about one thing. If I wasn’t married already, I tell you this—I should envy you your wife.”
He pointed to the portfolio in his turn.
“Read what I have written there,” he said; “and you will understand what those false friends of mine have made me suffer to-night.”
The next morning my wife and I opened the portfolio, and read the strange story of George Germaine’s marriage.
GEORGE GERMAINE WRITES,
AND TELLS HIS OWN LOVE STORY.
CHAPTER I. GREENWATER BROAD
LOOK back, my memory, through the dim labyrinth of the past, through the mingling joys and sorrows of twenty years. Rise again, my boyhood’s days, by the winding green shores of the little lake. Come to me once more, my child-love, in the innocent beauty of your first ten years of life. Let us live again, my angel, as we lived in our first paradise, before sin and sorrow lifted their flaming swords and drove us out into the world.
The month was March. The last wild fowl of the season were floating on the waters of the lake which, in our Suffolk tongue, we called Greenwater Broad.
Wind where it might, the grassy banks and the overhanging trees tinged the lake with the soft green reflections from which it took its name. In a creek at the south end, the boats were kept—my own pretty sailing boat having a tiny natural harbor all to itself. In a creek at the north end stood the great trap (called a “decoy”), used for snaring the wild fowl which flocked every winter, by thousands and thousands, to Greenwater Broad.
My little Mary and I went out together, hand in hand, to see the last birds of the season lured into the decoy.
The outer part of the strange bird-trap rose from the waters of the lake in a series of circular arches, formed of elastic branches bent to the needed shape, and covered with folds of fine network, making the roof. Little by little diminishing in size, the arches and their net-work followed the secret windings of the creek inland to its end. Built back round the arches, on their landward side, ran a wooden paling, high enough to hide a man kneeling behind it from the view of the birds on the lake. At certain intervals a hole was broken in the paling just large enough to allow of the passage through it of a dog of the terrier or the spaniel breed. And there began and ended the simple yet sufficient mechanism of the decoy.
In those days I was thirteen, and Mary was ten years old. Walking on our way to the lake we had Mary’s father with us for guide and companion. The good man served as bailiff on my father’s estate. He was, besides, a skilled master in the art of decoying ducks. The dog that helped him (we used no tame ducks as decoys in Suffolk) was a little black terrier; a skilled master also, in his way; a creature who possessed, in equal proportions, the enviable advantages of perfect good-humor and perfect common sense.
The dog followed the bailiff, and we followed the dog.
Arrived at the paling which surrounded the decoy, the dog sat down to wait until he was wanted. The bailiff and the children crouched behind the paling, and peeped through the outermost dog-hole, which commanded a full view of the lake. It was a day without wind; not a ripple stirred the surface of the water; the soft gray clouds filled all the sky, and hid the sun from view.
We peeped through the hole in the paling. There were the wild ducks—collected within easy reach of the decoy—placidly dressing their feathers on the placid surface of the lake.
The bailiff looked at the dog, and made a sign. The dog looked at the bailiff; and, stepping forward quietly, passed through the hole, so as to show himself on the narrow strip of ground shelving down from the outer side of the paling to the lake.
First one duck, then another, then half a dozen together, discovered the dog.
A new object showing itself on the solitary scene instantly became an object of all-devouring curiosity to the ducks. The outermost of them began to swim slowly toward the strange four-footed creature, planted motionless on the bank. By twos and threes, the main body of the waterfowl gradually followed the advanced guard. Swimming nearer and nearer to the dog, the wary ducks suddenly came to a halt, and, poised on the water, viewed from a safe distance the phenomenon on the land.
The bailiff, kneeling behind the paling, whispered, “Trim!”
Hearing his name, the terrier turned about, and retiring through the hole, became lost to the view of the ducks. Motionless on the water, the wild fowl wondered and waited. In a minute more, the dog had trotted round, and had shown himself through the next hole in the paling, pierced further inward where the lake ran up into the outermost of the windings of the creek.
The second appearance of the terrier instantly produced a second fit of curiosity among the ducks. With one accord, they swam forward again, to get another and a nearer view of the dog; then, judging their safe distance once more, they stopped for the second time, under the outermost arch of the decoy. Again the dog vanished, and the puzzled ducks waited. An interval passed, and the third appearance of Trim took place, through a third hole in the paling, pierced further inland up the creek. For the third time irresistible curiosity urged the ducks to advance further and further inward, under the fatal arches of the decoy. A fourth and a fifth time the game went on, until the dog had lured the water-fowl from point to point into the inner recesses of the decoy. There a last appearance of Trim took place. A last advance, a last cautious pause, was made by the ducks. The bailiff touched the strings, the weighed net-work fell vertically into the water, and closed the decoy. There, by dozens and dozens, were the ducks, caught by means of their own curiosity—with nothing but a little dog for a bait! In a few hours afterward they were all dead ducks on their way to the London market.
As the last act in the curious comedy of the decoy came to its end, little Mary laid her hand on my shoulder, and, raising herself on tiptoe, whispered in my ear:
“George, come home with me. I have got something to show you that is better worth seeing than the ducks.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a surprise. I won’t tell you.”
“Will you give me a kiss?”
The charming little creature put her slim sun-burned arms round my neck, and answered:
“As many kisses as you like, George.”
It was innocently said, on her side. It was innocently done, on mine. The good easy bailiff, looking aside at the moment from his ducks, discovered us pursuing our boy-and-girl courtship in each other’s arms. He shook his big forefinger at us, with something of a sad and doubting smile.
“Ah, Master George, Master George!” he said. “When your father comes home, do you think he will approve of his son and heir kissing his bailiff’s daughter?”
“When my father comes home,” I answered, with great dignity, “I shall tell him the truth. I shall say I am going to marry your daughter.”
The bailiff burst out laughing, and looked back again at his ducks.
“Well, well!” we heard him say to himself. “They’re only children. There’s no call, poor things, to part them yet awhile.”
Mary and I had a great dislike to be called children. Properly understood, one of us was a lady aged ten, and the other was a gentleman aged thirteen. We left the good bailiff indignantly, and went away together, hand in hand, to the cottage.
CHAPTER II. TWO YOUNG HEARTS.
“HE is growing too fast,” said the doctor to my mother; “and he is getting a great deal too clever for a boy at his age. Remove him from school, ma’am, for six months; let him run about in the open air at home; and if you find him with a book in his hand, take it away directly. There is my prescription.”
Those words decided my fate in life.
In obedience to the doctor’s advice, I was left an idle boy—without brothers, sisters, or companions of my own age—to roam about the grounds of our lonely country-house. The bailiff’s daughter, like me, was an only child; and, like me, she had no playfellows. We met in our wanderings on the solitary shores of the lake. Beginning by being inseparable companions, we ripened and developed into true lovers. Our preliminary courtship concluded, we next proposed (before I returned to school) to burst into complete maturity by becoming man and wife.
I am not writing in jest. Absurd as it may appear to “sensible people,” we two children were lovers, if ever there were lovers yet.
We had no pleasures apart from the one all-sufficient pleasure which we found in each other’s society. We objected to the night, because it parted us. We entreated our parents, on either side, to let us sleep in the same room. I was angry with my mother, and Mary was disappointed in her father, when they laughed at us, and wondered what we should want next. Looking onward, from those days to the days of my manhood, I can vividly recall such hours of happiness as have fallen to my share. But I remember no delights of that later time comparable to the exquisite and enduring pleasure that filled my young being when I walked with Mary in the woods; when I sailed with Mary in my boat on the lake; when I met Mary, after the cruel separation of the night, and flew into her open arms as if we had been parted for months and months together.
What was the attraction that drew us so closely one to the other, at an age when the sexual sympathies lay dormant in her and in me?
We neither knew nor sought to know. We obeyed the impulse to love one another, as a bird obeys the impulse to fly.
Let it not be supposed that we possessed any natural gifts, or advantages which singled us out as differing in a marked way from other children at our time of life. We possessed nothing of the sort. I had been called a clever boy at school; but there were thousands of other boys, at thousands of other schools, who headed their classes and won their prizes, like me. Personally speaking, I was in no way remarkable—except for being, in the ordinary phrase, “tall for my age.” On her side, Mary displayed no striking attractions. She was a fragile child, with mild gray eyes and a pale complexion; singularly undemonstrative, singularly shy and silent, except when she was alone with me. Such beauty as she had, in those early days, lay in a certain artless purity and tenderness of expression, and in the charming reddish-brown color of her hair, varying quaintly and prettily in different lights. To all outward appearance two perfectly commonplace children, we were mysteriously united by some kindred association of the spirit in her and the spirit in me, which not only defied discovery by our young selves, but which lay too deep for investigation by far older and far wiser heads than ours.
You will naturally wonder whether anything was done by our elders to check our precocious attachment, while it was still an innocent love union between a boy and a girl.
Nothing was done by my father, for the simple reason that he was away from home.
He was a man of a restless and speculative turn of mind. Inheriting his estate burdened with debt, his grand ambition was to increase his small available income by his own exertions; to set up an establishment in London; and to climb to political distinction by the ladder of Parliament. An old friend, who had emigrated to America, had proposed to him a speculation in agriculture, in one of the Western States, which was to make both their fortunes. My father’s eccentric fancy was struck by the idea. For more than a year past he had been away from us in the United States; and all we knew of him (instructed by his letters) was, that he might be shortly expected to return to us in the enviable character of one of the richest men in England.
As for my poor mother—the sweetest and softest-hearted of women—to see me happy was all that she desired.
The quaint little love romance of the two children amused and interested her. She jested with Mary’s father about the coming union between the two families, without one serious thought of the future—without even a foreboding of what might happen when my father returned. “Sufficient for the day is the evil (or the good) thereof,” had been my mother’s motto all her life. She agreed with the easy philosophy of the bailiff, already recorded in these pages: “They’re only children. There’s no call, poor things, to part them yet a while.”
There was one member of the family, however, who took a sensible and serious view of the matter.
My father’s brother paid us a visit in our solitude; discovered what was going on between Mary and me; and was, at first, naturally enough, inclined to laugh at us. Closer investigation altered his way of thinking. He became convinced that my mother was acting like a fool; that the bailiff (a faithful servant, if ever there was one yet) was cunningly advancing his own interests by means of his daughter; and that I was a young idiot, who had developed his native reserves of imbecility at an unusually early period of life. Speaking to my mother under the influence of these strong impressions, my uncle offered to take me back with him to London, and keep me there until I had been brought to my senses by association with his own children, and by careful superintendence under his own roof.
My mother hesitated about accepting this proposal; she had the advantage over my uncle of understanding my disposition. While she was still doubting, while my uncle was still impatiently waiting for her decision, I settled the question for my elders by running away.
I left a letter to represent me in my absence; declaring that no mortal power should part me from Mary, and promising to return and ask my mother’s pardon as soon as my uncle had left the house. The strictest search was made for me without discovering a trace of my place of refuge. My uncle departed for London, predicting that I should live to be a disgrace to the family, and announcing that he should transmit his opinion of me to my father in America by the next mail.
The secret of the hiding-place in which I contrived to defy discovery is soon told. I was hidden (without the bailiff’s knowledge) in the bedroom of the bailiff’s mother. And did the bailiff’s mother know it? you will ask. To which I answer: the bailiff’s mother did it. And, what is more, gloried in doing it—not, observe, as an act of hostility to my relatives, but simply as a duty that lay on her conscience.
What sort of old woman, in the name of all that is wonderful, was this? Let her appear, and speak for herself—the wild and weird grandmother of gentle little Mary; the Sibyl of modern times, known, far and wide, in our part of Suffolk, as Dame Dermody.
I see her again, as I write, sitting in her son’s pretty cottage parlor, hard by the window, so that the light fell over her shoulder while she knitted or read. A little, lean, wiry old woman was Dame Dermody—with fierce black eyes, surmounted by bushy white eyebrows, by a high wrinkled forehead, and by thick white hair gathered neatly under her old-fashioned “mob-cap.” Report whispered (and whispered truly) that she had been a lady by birth and breeding, and that she had deliberately closed her prospects in life by marrying a man greatly her inferior in social rank. Whatever her family might think of her marriage, she herself never regretted it. In her estimation her husband’s memory was a sacred memory; his spirit was a guardian spirit, watching over her, waking or sleeping, morning or night.
Holding this faith, she was in no respect influenced by those grossly material ideas of modern growth which associate the presence of spiritual beings with clumsy conjuring tricks and monkey antics performed on tables and chairs. Dame Dermody’s nobler superstition formed an integral part of her religious convictions—convictions which had long since found their chosen resting-place in the mystic doctrines of Emanuel Swedenborg. The only books which she read were the works of the Swedish Seer. She mixed up Swedenborg’s teachings on angels and departed spirits, on love to one’s neighbor and purity of life, with wild fancies, and kindred beliefs of her own; and preached the visionary religious doctrines thus derived, not only in the bailiff’s household, but also on proselytizing expeditions to the households of her humble neighbors, far and near.
Under her son’s roof—after the death of his wife—she reigned a supreme power; priding herself alike on her close attention to her domestic duties, and on her privileged communications with angels and spirits. She would hold long colloquys with the spirit of her dead husband before anybody who happened to be present—colloquys which struck the simple spectators mute with terror. To her mystic view, the love union between Mary and me was something too sacred and too beautiful to be tried by the mean and matter-of-fact tests set up by society. She wrote for us little formulas of prayer and praise, which we were to use when we met and when we parted, day by day. She solemnly warned her son to look upon us as two young consecrated creatures, walking unconsciously on a heavenly path of their own, whose beginning was on earth, but whose bright end was among the angels in a better state of being. Imagine my appearing before such a woman as this, and telling her with tears of despair that I was determined to die, rather than let my uncle part me from little Mary, and you will no longer be astonished at the hospitality which threw open to me the sanctuary of Dame Dermody’s own room.
When the safe time came for leaving my hiding-place, I committed a serious mistake. In thanking the old woman at parting, I said to her (with a boy’s sense of honor), “I won’t tell upon you, Dame. My mother shan’t know that you hid me in your bedroom.”
The Sibyl laid her dry, fleshless hand on my shoulder, and forced me roughly back into the chair from which I had just risen.
“Boy!” she said, looking through and through me with her fierce black eyes. “Do you dare suppose that I ever did anything that I was ashamed of? Do you think I am ashamed of what I have done now? Wait there. Your mother may mistake me too. I shall write to your mother.”
She put on her great round spectacles with tortoise-shell rims and sat down to her letter. Whenever her thoughts flagged, whenever she was at a loss for an expression, she looked over her shoulder, as if some visible creature were stationed behind her, watching what she wrote; consulted the spirit of her husband, exactly as she might have consulted a living man; smiled softly to herself, and went on with her writing.
“There!” she said, handing me the completed letter with an imperial gesture of indulgence. “His mind and my mind are written there. Go, boy. I pardon you. Give my letter to your mother.”
So she always spoke, with the same formal and measured dignity of manner and language.
I gave the letter to my mother. We read it, and marveled over it together. Thus, counseled by the ever-present spirit of her husband, Dame Dermody wrote:
“MADAM—I have taken what you may be inclined to think a great liberty. I have assisted your son George in setting his uncle’s authority at defiance. I have encouraged your son George in his resolution to be true, in time and in eternity, to my grandchild, Mary Dermody.
“It is due to you and to me that I should tell you with what motive I have acted in doing these things.
“I hold the belief that all love that is true is foreordained and consecrated in heaven. Spirits destined to be united in the better world are divinely commissioned to discover each other and to begin their union in this world. The only happy marriages are those in which the two destined spirits have succeeded in meeting one another in this sphere of life.
“When the kindred spirits have once met, no human power can really part them. Sooner or later, they must, by divine law, find each other again and become united spirits once more. Worldly wisdom may force them into widely different ways of life; worldly wisdom may delude them, or may make them delude themselves, into contracting an earthly and a fallible union. It matters nothing. The time will certainly come when that union will manifest itself as earthly and fallible; and the two disunited spirits, finding each other again, will become united here for the world beyond this—united, I tell you, in defiance of all human laws and of all human notions of right and wrong.
“This is my belief. I have proved it by my own life. Maid, wife, and widow, I have held to it, and I have found it good.
“I was born, madam, in the rank of society to which you belong. I received the mean, material teaching which fulfills the worldly notion of education. Thanks be to God, my kindred spirit met my spirit while I was still young. I knew true love and true union before I was twenty years of age. I married, madam, in the rank from which Christ chose his apostles—I married a laboring-man. No human language can tell my happiness while we lived united here. His death has not parted us. He helps me to write this letter. In my last hours I shall see him standing among the angels, waiting for me on the banks of the shining river.
“You will now understand the view I take of the tie which unites the young spirits of our children at the bright outset of their lives.
“Believe me, the thing which your husband’s brother has proposed to you to do is a sacrilege and a profanation. I own to you freely that I look on what I have done toward thwarting your relative in this matter as an act of virtue. You cannot expect me to think it a serious obstacle to a union predestined in heaven, that your son is the squire’s heir, and that my grandchild is only the bailiff’s daughter. Dismiss from your mind, I implore you, the unworthy and unchristian prejudices of rank. Are we not all equal before God? Are we not all equal (even in this world) before disease and death? Not your son’s happiness only, but your own peace of mind, is concerned in taking heed to my words. I warn you, madam, you cannot hinder the destined union of these two child-spirits, in after-years, as man and wife. Part them now—and YOU will be responsible for the sacrifices, degradations and distresses through which your George and my Mary may be condemned to pass on their way back to each other in later life.
“Now my mind is unburdened. Now I have said all.
“If I have spoken too freely, or have in any other way unwittingly offended, I ask your pardon, and remain, madam, your faithful servant and well-wisher, HELEN DERMODY.”
So the letter ended.
To me it is something more than a mere curiosity of epistolary composition. I see in it the prophecy—strangely fulfilled in later years—of events in Mary’s life, and in mine, which future pages are now to tell.
My mother decided on leaving the letter unanswered. Like many of her poorer neighbors, she was a little afraid of Dame Dermody; and she was, besides, habitually averse to all discussions which turned on the mysteries of spiritual life. I was reproved, admonished, and forgiven; and there was the end of it.
For some happy weeks Mary and I returned, without hinderance or interruption, to our old intimate companionship The end was coming, however, when we least expected it. My mother was startled, one morning, by a letter from my father, which informed her that he had been unexpectedly obliged to sail for England at a moment’s notice; that he had arrived in London, and that he was detained there by business which would admit of no delay. We were to wait for him at home, in daily expectation of seeing him the moment he was free.
This news filled my mother’s mind with foreboding doubts of the stability of her husband’s grand speculation in America. The sudden departure from the United States, and the mysterious delay in London, were ominous, to her eyes, of misfortune to come. I am now writing of those dark days in the past, when the railway and the electric telegraph were still visions in the minds of inventors. Rapid communication with my father (even if he would have consented to take us into his confidence) was impossible. We had no choice but to wait and hope.
The weary days passed; and still my father’s brief letters described him as detained by his business. The morning came when Mary and I went out with Dermody, the bailiff, to see the last wild fowl of the season lured into the decoy; and still the welcome home waited for the master, and waited in vain.
CHAPTER III. SWEDENBORG AND THE SIBYL.
MY narrative may move on again from the point at which it paused in the first chapter.
Mary and I (as you may remember) had left the bailiff alone at the decoy, and had set forth on our way together to Dermody’s cottage.
As we approached the garden gate, I saw a servant from the house waiting there. He carried a message from my mother—a message for me.
“My mistress wishes you to go home, Master George, as soon as you can. A letter has come by the coach. My master means to take a post-chaise from London, and sends word that we may expect him in the course of the day.”
Mary’s attentive face saddened when she heard those words.
“Must you really go away, George,” she whispered, “before you see what I have got waiting for you at home?”
I remembered Mary’s promised “surprise,” the secret of which was only to be revealed to me when we got to the cottage. How could I disappoint her? My poor little lady-love looked ready to cry at the bare prospect of it.
I dismissed the servant with a message of the temporizing sort. My love to my mother—and I would be back at the house in half an hour.
We entered the cottage.
Dame Dermody was sitting in the light of the window, as usual, with one of the mystic books of Emanuel Swedenborg open on her lap. She solemnly lifted her hand on our appearance, signing to us to occupy our customary corner without speaking to her. It was an act of domestic high treason to interrupt the Sibyl at her books. We crept quietly into our places. Mary waited until she saw her grandmother’s gray head bend down, and her grandmother’s bushy eyebrows contract attentively, over her reading. Then, and then only, the discreet child rose on tiptoe, disappeared noiselessly in the direction of her bedchamber, and came back to me carrying something carefully wrapped up in her best cambric handkerchief.
“Is that the surprise?” I whispered.
Mary whispered back: “Guess what it is?”
“Something for me?”
“Yes. Go on guessing. What is it?”
I guessed three times, and each guess was wrong. Mary decided on helping me by a hint.
“Say your letters,” she suggested; “and go on till I stop you.”
I began: “A, B, C, D, E, F—” There she stopped me.
“It’s the name of a Thing,” she said; “and it begins with F.”
I guessed, “Fern,” “Feather,” “Fife.” And here my resources failed me.
Mary sighed, and shook her head. “You don’t take pains,” she said. “You are three whole years older than I am. After all the trouble I have taken to please you, you may be too big to care for my present when you see it. Guess again.”
“I can’t guess.”
“I give it up.”
Mary refused to let me give it up. She helped me by another hint.
“What did you once say you wished you had in your boat?” she asked.
“Was it long ago?” I inquired, at a loss for an answer.
“Long, long ago! Before the winter. When the autumn leaves were falling, and you took me out one evening for a sail. Ah, George, you have forgotten!”
Too true, of me and of my brethren, old and young alike! It is always his love that forgets, and her love that remembers. We were only two children, and we were types of the man and the woman already.
Mary lost patience with me. Forgetting the terrible presence of her grandmother, she jumped up, and snatched the concealed object out of her handkerchief.
“There!” she cried, briskly, “now do you know what it is?”
I remembered at last. The thing I had wished for in my boat, all those months ago, was a new flag. And here was the flag, made for me in secret by Mary’s own hand! The ground was green silk, with a dove embroidered on it in white, carrying in its beak the typical olive-branch, wrought in gold thread. The work was the tremulous, uncertain work of a child’s fingers. But how faithfully my little darling had remembered my wish! how patiently she had plied the needle over the traced lines of the pattern! how industriously she had labored through the dreary winter days! and all for my sake! What words could tell my pride, my gratitude, my happiness?
I too forgot the presence of the Sibyl bending over her book. I took the little workwoman in my arms, and kissed her till I was fairly out of breath and could kiss no longer.
“Mary!” I burst out, in the first heat of my enthusiasm, “my father is coming home to-day. I will speak to him to-night. And I will marry you to-morrow!”
“Boy!” said the awful voice at the other end of the room. “Come here.”
Dame Dermody’s mystic book was closed; Dame Dermody’s weird black eyes were watching us in our corner. I approached her; and Mary followed me timidly, by a footstep at a time.
The Sibyl took me by the hand, with a caressing gentleness which was new in my experience of her.
“Do you prize that toy?” she inquired, looking at the flag. “Hide it!” she cried, before I could answer. “Hide it—or it may be taken from you!”
“Why should I hide it?” I asked. “I want to fly it at the mast of my boat.”
“You will never fly it at the mast of your boat!” With that answer she took the flag from me and thrust it impatiently into the breast-pocket of my jacket.
“Don’t crumple it, grandmother!” said Mary, piteously.
I repeated my question:
“Why shall I never fly it at the mast of my boat?”
Dame Dermody laid her hand on the closed volume of Swedenborg lying in her lap.
“Three times I have opened this book since the morning,” she said. “Three times the words of the prophet warn me that there is trouble coming. Children, it is trouble that is coming to You. I look there,” she went on, pointing to the place where a ray of sunlight poured slanting into the room, “and I see my husband in the heavenly light. He bows his head in grief, and he points his unerring hand at You. George and Mary, you are consecrated to each other! Be always worthy of your consecration; be always worthy of yourselves.” She paused. Her voice faltered. She looked at us with softening eyes, as those look who know sadly that there is a parting at hand. “Kneel!” she said, in low tones of awe and grief. “It may be the last time I bless you—it may be the last time I pray over you, in this house. Kneel!”
We knelt close together at her feet. I could feel Mary’s heart throbbing, as she pressed nearer and nearer to my side. I could feel my own heart quickening its beat, with a fear that was a mystery to me.
“God bless and keep George and Mary, here and hereafter! God prosper, in future days, the union which God’s wisdom has willed! Amen. So be it. Amen.”
As the last words fell from her lips the cottage door was thrust open. My father—followed by the bailiff—entered the room.
Dame Dermody got slowly on her feet, and looked at him with a stern scrutiny.
“It has come,” she said to herself. “It looks with the eyes—it will speak with the voice—of that man.”
My father broke the silence that followed, addressing himself to the bailiff.
“You see, Dermody,” he said, “here is my son in your cottage—when he ought to be in my house.” He turned, and looked at me as I stood with my arm round little Mary, patiently waiting for my opportunity to speak. “George,” he said, with the hard smile which was peculiar to him, when he was angry and was trying to hide it, “you are making a fool of yourself there. Leave that child, and come to me.”
Now, or never, was my time to declare myself. Judging by appearances, I was still a boy. Judging by my own sensations, I had developed into a man at a moment’s notice.
“Papa,” I said, “I am glad to see you home again. This is Mary Dermody. I am in love with her, and she is in love with me. I wish to marry her as soon as it is convenient to my mother and you.”
My father burst out laughing. Before I could speak again, his humor changed. He had observed that Dermody, too, presumed to be amused. He seemed to become mad with anger, all in a moment.
“I have been told of this infernal tomfoolery,” he said, “but I didn’t believe it till now. Who has turned the boy’s weak head? Who has encouraged him to stand there hugging that girl? If it’s you, Dermody, it shall be the worst day’s work you ever did in your life.” He turned to me again, before the bailiff could defend himself. “Do you hear what I say? I tell you to leave Dermody’s girl, and come home with me.”
“Yes, papa,” I answered. “But I must go back to Mary, if you please, after I have been with you.”
Angry as he was, my father was positively staggered by my audacity.
“You young idiot, your insolence exceeds belief!” he burst out. “I tell you this: you will never darken these doors again! You have been taught to disobey me here. You have had things put into your head, here, which no boy of your age ought to know—I’ll say more, which no decent people would have let you know.”
“I beg your pardon, sir,” Dermody interposed, very respectfully and very firmly at the same time. “There are many things which a master in a hot temper is privileged to say to the man who serves him. But you have gone beyond your privilege. You have shamed me, sir, in the presence of my mother, in the hearing of my child—”
My father checked him there.
“You may spare the rest of it,” he said. “We are master and servant no longer. When my son came hanging about your cottage, and playing at sweethearts with your girl there, your duty was to close the door on him. You have failed in your duty. I trust you no longer. Take a month’s notice, Dermody. You leave my service.”
The bailiff steadily met my father on his ground. He was no longer the easy, sweet-tempered, modest man who was the man of my remembrance.
“I beg to decline taking your month’s notice, sir,” he answered. “You shall have no opportunity of repeating what you have just said to me. I will send in my accounts to-night. And I will leave your service to-morrow.”
“We agree for once,” retorted my father. “The sooner you go, the better.”
He stepped across the room and put his hand on my shoulder.
“Listen to me,” he said, making a last effort to control himself. “I don’t want to quarrel with you before a discarded servant. There must be an end to this nonsense. Leave these people to pack up and go, and come back to the house with me.”
His heavy hand, pressing on my shoulder, seemed to press the spirit of resistance out of me. I so far gave way as to try to melt him by entreaties.
“Oh, papa! papa!” I cried. “Don’t part me from Mary! See how pretty and good she is! She has made me a flag for my boat. Let me come here and see her sometimes. I can’t live without her.”
I could say no more. My poor little Mary burst out crying. Her tears and my entreaties were alike wasted on my father.
“Take your choice,” he said, “between coming away of your own accord, or obliging me to take you away by force. I mean to part you and Dermody’s girl.”
“Neither you nor any man can part them,” interposed a voice, speaking behind us. “Rid your mind of that notion, master, before it is too late.”
My father looked round quickly, and discovered Dame Dermody facing him in the full light of the window. She had stepped back, at the outset of the dispute, into the corner behind the fireplace. There she had remained, biding her time to speak, until my father’s last threat brought her out of her place of retirement.
They looked at each other for a moment. My father seemed to think it beneath his dignity to answer her. He went on with what he had to say to me.
“I shall count three slowly,” he resumed. “Before I get to the last number, make up your mind to do what I tell you, or submit to the disgrace of being taken away by force.”
“Take him where you may,” said Dame Dermody, “he will still be on his way to his marriage with my grandchild.”
“And where shall I be, if you please?” asked my father, stung into speaking to her this time.
The answer followed instantly in these startling words:
“You will be on your way to your ruin and your death.”
My father turned his back on the prophetess with a smile of contempt.
“One!” he said, beginning to count.
I set my teeth, and clasped both arms round Mary as he spoke. I had inherited some of his temper, and he was now to know it.
“Two!” proceeded my father, after waiting a little.
Mary put her trembling lips to my ear, and whispered: “Let me go, George! I can’t bear to see it. Oh, look how he frowns! I know he’ll hurt you.”
My father lifted his forefinger as a preliminary warning before he counted Three.
“Stop!” cried Dame Dermody.
My father looked round at her again with sardonic astonishment.
“I beg your pardon, ma’am—have you anything particular to say to me?” he asked.
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