What Answer?

Home

11. Chapter XI



"The future seemed barred
By the corpse of a dead hope.
"

OWEN MEREDITH

So, then, after these long years he had seen her again. Having seen her, he wondered how he had lived without her. If the wearisome months seemed endless in passing, the morning hours were an eternity. "This afternoon?" he had said. "Be it so," she had answered. He did not dare to go till then.

Thinking over the scene of the morning, he scarcely dared go at all. She had not offered her hand; she had expressed no pleasure, either by look or word, at meeting him again. He had forced her to say, "Come": she could do no less when he had just interfered to save her insult, and had begged the boon.

"Insult!" his arm ached to strike another blow, as he remembered the sentence it had cut short. Of course the fellow had been drinking, but outrage of her was intolerable, whatever madness prompted it. The very sun must shine more brightly, and the wind blow softly, when she passed by. Ah me! were the whole world what an ardent lover prays for his mistress, there were no need of death to enjoy the bliss of heaven.

What could he say? what do? how find words to speak the measured feelings of a friend? how control the beatings of his heart, the passion of his soul, that no sign should escape to wound or offend her? She had bade him to silence: was he sufficiently master of himself to strike the lighter keys without sounding some deep chords that would jar upon her ear?

He tried to picture the scene of their second meeting. He repeated again and again her formal title, Miss Ercildoune, that he might familiarize his tongue and his ear to the sound, and not be on the instant betrayed into calling the name which he so often uttered in his thoughts. He said over some civil, kindly words of greeting, and endeavored to call up, and arrange in order, a theme upon which he should converse. "I shall not dare to be silent," he thought, "for if I am, my silence will tell the tale; and if that do not, she will hear it from the throbbings of my heart. I don't know though,"--he laughed a little, as he spoke aloud,--bitterly it would have been, had his voice been capable of bitterness,--"perhaps she will think the organism of the poor thing has become diseased in camp and fightings,"--putting his hand up to his throat and holding the swollen veins, where the blood was beating furiously.

Presently he went down stairs and out to the street, in pursuit of some cut flowers which he found in a little cellar, a stone's throw from his hotel,--a fresh, damp little cellar, which smelt, he could not help thinking, like a grave. Coming out to the sunshine, he shook himself with disgust. "Faugh!" he thought, "what sick fancies and sentimental nonsense possess me? I am growing unwholesome. My dreams of the other night have come back to torment me in the day. These must put them to flight."

The fancy which had sent him in pursuit of these flowers he confessed to be a childish one, but none the less soothing for that. He had remembered that the first day he beheld her a nosegay had decorated his button-hole; a fair, sweet-scented thing which seemed, in some subtle way, like her. He wanted now just such another,--some mignonette, and geranium, and a single tea-rosebud. Here they were,--the very counterparts of those which he had worn on a brighter and happier day. How like they were! how changed was he! In some moods he would have smiled at this bit of girlish folly as he fastened the little thing over his heart; now, something sounded in his throat that was pitifully like a sob. Don't smile at him! he was so young; so impassioned, yet gentle; and then he loved so utterly with the whole of his great, sore heart.

By and by the time came to go, and eager, yet fearful, he went. It was a fresh, beautiful day in early June; and when the city, with its heat, and dust, and noise, was left behind, and all the leafy greenness--the soothing quiet of country sights and country sounds--met his ear and eye, a curious peace took possession of his soul. It was less the whisper of hope than the calm of assured reality. For the moment, unreasonable as it seemed, something made him blissfully sure of her love, spite of the rebuffs and coldness she had compelled him to endure.

"This is the place, sir!" suddenly called his driver, stopping the horses in front of a stately avenue of trees, and jumping down to open the gates.

"You need not drive in; you may wait here."

This, then, was her home. He took in the exquisite beauty of the place with a keen pleasure. It was right that all things sweet and fine should be about her; he had before known that they were, but it delighted him to see them with his own eyes. Walking slowly towards the house,--slowly, for he was both impelled and retarded by the conflicting feelings that mastered him,--he heard her voice at a little distance, singing; and directly she came out of a by-path, and faced him. He need not have feared the meeting; at least, any display of emotion; she gave no opportunity for any such thing.

A frankly extended hand,--an easy "Good afternoon, Mr. Surrey!" That was all. It was a cool, beautiful room into which she ushered him; a room filled with an atmosphere of peace, but which was anything but peaceful to him. He was restless, nervous; eager and excited, or absent and still. He determined to master his emotion, and give no outward sign of the tempest raging within.

At the instant of this conclusion his eye was caught by an exquisite portrait miniature upon an easel near him. Bending over it, taking it into his hands, his eyes went to and fro from the pictured face to the human one, tracing the likeness in each. Marking his interest, Francesca said, "It is my mother."

"If the eyes were dark, this would be your veritable image."

"Or, if mine were blue, I should be a portrait of mamma, which would be better."

"Better?"

"Yes." She was looking at the picture with weary eyes, which he could not see. "I had rather be the shadow of her than the reality of myself: an absurd fancy!" she added, with a smile, suddenly remembering herself.

"I would it were true!" he exclaimed.

She looked a surprised inquiry. His thought was, "for then I should steal you, and wear you always on my heart." But of course he could speak no such lover's nonsense; so he said, "Because of the fitness of things; you wished to be a shadow, which is immaterial, and hence of the substance of angels."

Truly he was improving. His effort to betray no love had led him into a ridiculous compliment. "What an idiot she will think me to say anything so silly!" he reflected; while Francesca was thinking, "He has ceased to love me, or he would not resort to flattery. It is well!" but the pang that shot through her heart belied the closing thought, and, glancing at him, the first was denied by the unconscious expression of his eyes. Seeing that, she directly took alarm, and commenced to talk upon a score of indifferent themes.

He had never seen her in such a mood: gay, witty, brilliant,--full of a restless sparkle and fire; she would not speak an earnest word, nor hear one. She flung about bonmots, and chatted airy persiflage till his heart ached. At another time, in another condition, he would have been delighted, dazzled, at this strange display; but not now.

In some careless fashion the war had been alluded to, and she spoke of Chancellorsville. "It was there you were last wounded?"

"Yes," he answered, not even looking down at the empty sleeve.

"It was there you lost your arm?"

"Yes," he answered again, "I am sorry it was my sword-arm."

"It was frightful,"--holding her breath. "Do you know you were reported mortally wounded? worse?"

"I have heard that I was sent up with the slain," he replied, half-smiling.

"It is true. I looked for your name in the columns of 'wounded' and 'missing,' and read it at last in the list of 'killed.'"

"For the sake of old times, I trust you were a little sorry to so read it," he said, sadly, for the tone hurt him.

"Sorry? yes, I was sorry. Who, indeed, of your friends would not be?"

"Who, indeed?" he repeated: "I am afraid the one whose regret I should most desire would sorrow the least."

"It is very like," she answered, with seeming carelessness,--"disappointment is the rule of life."

This would not do. He was getting upon dangerous ground. He would change the theme, and prevent any farther speech till he was better master of it. He begged for some music. She sat down at once and played for him; then sang at his desire. Rich as she was in the gifts of nature, her voice was the chief,--thrilling, flexible, with a sympathetic quality that in singing pathetic music brought tears, though the hearer understood not a word of the language in which she sang. In the old time he had never wearied listening, and now he besought her to repeat for him some of the dear, familiar songs. If these held for her any associations, he did not know it; she gave no outward sign,--sang to him as sweetly and calmly as to the veriest stranger. What else had he expected? Nothing; yet, with the unreasonableness of a lover, was disappointed that nothing appeared.

Taking up a piece at random, without pausing to remember the words, he said, spreading it before her, "May I tax you a little farther? I am greedy, I know, but then how can I help it?"

It was the song of the Princess.

She hesitated a moment, and half closed the book. Had he been standing where he could see her face, he would have been shocked by its pallor. It was over directly: she recovered herself, and, opening the music with a resolute air, began to sing:--

"Ask me no more: the moon may draw the sea;
The cloud may stoop from heaven and take the shape,
With fold to fold, of mountain and of cape;
But, O too fond, when have I answered thee?
Ask me no more.

"Ask me no more: what answer should I give?
I love not hollow cheek or faded eye;
Yet, O my friend, I will not have thee die!
Ask me no more, lest I should bid thee live:
Ask me no more."

She sang thus far with a clear, untrembling voice,--so clear and untrembling as to be almost metallic,--the restraint she had put upon herself making it unnatural. At the commencement she had estimated her strength, and said, "It is sufficient!" but she had overtaxed it, as she found in singing the last verse:--

"Ask me no more: thy fate and mine are sealed;
I strove against the stream and all in vain;
Let the great river take me to the main;
No more, dear love, for at a touch I yield:
Ask me no more."

All the longing, the passion, the prayer of which a human soul is capable found expression in her voice. It broke through the affected coldness and calm, as the ocean breaks through its puny barriers when, after wind and tempest, all its mighty floods are out. Surrey had changed his place, and stood fronting her. As the last word fell, she looked at him, and the two faces saw in each but a reflection of the same passion and pain: pallid, with eyes burning from an inward fire,--swayed by the same emotion,--she bent forward as he, stretching forth his arms, in a stifling voice cried, "Come!"

Bent, but for an instant; then, by a superhuman effort, turned from him, and put out her hand with a gesture of dissent, though she could not control her voice to speak a word.

At that he came close to her, not touching her hand or even her dress, but looking into her face with imploring eyes, and whispering, "Francesca, my darling, speak to me! say that you love me! one word! You are breaking my heart!"

Not a word.

"Francesca!"

She had mastered her voice. "Go!" she then said, beseechingly. "Oh, why did you ask me? why did I let you come?"

"No, no," he answered. "I cannot go,--not till you answer me."

"Ah!" she entreated, "do not ask! I can give no such answer as you desire. It is all wrong,--all a mistake. You do not comprehend."

"Make me, then."

She was silent.

"Forgive me. I am rude: I cannot help it. I will not go unless you say, 'I do not love you.' Nothing but this shall drive me away."

Francesca's training in her childhood had been by a Catholic governess; she never quite lost its effect. Now she raised her hand to a little gold cross that hung at her neck, her fingers closing on it with a despairing clasp. "Ah, Christ, have pity!" her heart cried. "Blessed Mother of God, forgive me! have mercy upon me!"

Her face was frightfully pale, but her voice did not tremble as she gave him her hand, and said gently, "Go, then, my friend. I do not love you."

He took her hand, held it close for a moment, and then, without another look or word, put it tenderly down, and was gone.

So absorbed was he in painful thought that, passing down the long avenue with bent head, he did not notice, nor even see, a gentleman who, coming from the opposite direction, looked at him at first carelessly, and then searchingly, as he went by.

This gentleman, a man in the prime of life, handsome, stately, and evidently at home here, scrutinized the stranger with a singular intensity,--made a movement as though he would speak to him,--and then, drawing back, went with hasty steps towards the house.

Had Willie looked up, beheld this face and its expression, returned the scrutiny of the one, and comprehended the meaning of the other, while memory recalled a picture once held in his hands, some things now obscured would have been revealed to him, and a problem been solved. As it was, he saw nothing, moved mechanically onward to the carriage, seated himself and said, "Home!"

This young man was neither presumptuous nor vain. He had been once repulsed and but now utterly rejected. He had no reason to hope, and yet--perhaps it was his poetical and imaginative temperament--he could not resign himself to despair.

Suddenly he started with an exclamation that was almost a cry. What was it? He remembered that, more than two years ago, on the last day he had been with her, he had begged the copy of a duet which they sometimes sang. It was in manuscript, and he desired to have it written out by her own hand. He had before petitioned, and she promised it; and when he thus again spoke of it, she laughed, and said, "What a memory it is, to be sure! I shall have to tie a bit of string on my finger to refresh it."

"Is that efficacious?" he had asked.

"Doubtless," she had replied, searching in her pocket for a scrap of anything that would serve.

"Will this do?" he then queried, bringing forth a coil of gold wire which he had been commissioned to buy for some fanciful work of his mother.

"Finely," she declared; "it is durable, it will give me a wide margin, it will be long in wearing out."

"Nay, then, you must have something more fragile," he had objected.

At that they both laughed, as he twisted a fragment of it on the little finger of her right hand. "There it is to stay," he asserted, "till your promise is redeemed." That was the last time he had seen her till to-day.

Now, sitting, thinking of the interview just passed, suddenly he remembered, as one often recalls the vision of something seemingly unnoticed at the time, that, upon her right hand, the little finger of the right hand, there was a delicate ring,--a mere thread,--in fact, a wire of gold; the very one himself had tied there two years ago.

In an instant, by one of those inexplicable connections of the brain or soul, he found himself living over an experience of his college youth.

He had been spending the day in Boston with a dear friend, some score of years his senior; a man of the rarest culture, and of a most sweet and gentle nature withal; and when evening came they had drifted naturally to the theatre,--the fool's paradise it may be sometimes, but to them on that occasion a real paradise.

He remembered well the play. It was Scott's Bride of Lammermoor. He had never read it, but, before the curtain rose, his friend had unfolded the story in so kind and skilful a manner as to have imbued him as fully with the spirit of the tale as though he had studied the book.

What he chiefly recalled in the play was the scene in which Ravenswood comes back to Emily long after they had been plighted,--long after he had supposed her faithless,--long after he had been tossed on a sea of troubles, touching the seeming decay in her affections. Just as she is about to be enveloped in the toils which were spread for her,--just as she is about to surrender herself to the hated nuptials, and submit to the embrace of one whom she loathed more than she dreaded death,--Ravenswood, the man whom Heaven had made for her, presents himself.

What followed was quiet, yet intensely dramatic. Ravenswood, wrought to the verge of despair, bursts upon the scene at the critical moment, detaches Emily from her party, and leads her slowly forward. He is unutterably sad. He questions her very tenderly; asks her whether she is not enforced; whether she is taking this step of her own free will and accord; whether she has indeed dismissed the dear, old fond love for him from her heart forever? He must hear it from her own lips. When timidly and feebly informed that such is indeed the case, he requests her to return a certain memento,--a silver trinket which had been given her as the symbol of his love on the occasion of their betrothal. Raising her hand to her throat she essays to draw it from her bosom. Her fingers rest upon the chain which binds it to her neck, but the o'erfraught heart is still,--the troubled, but unconscious head droops upon his shoulder,--he lifts the chain from its resting-place, and withdraws the token from her heart.

Supporting her with one hand and holding this badge of a lost love with the other, he says, looking down upon her with a face of anguish, and in a voice of despair, "And she could wear it thus!"

As this scene rose and lived before him, Surrey exclaimed, "Surely that must have been the perfection of art, to have produced an effect so lasting and profound,--'and she could wear it thus!'--ah," he said, as in response to some unexpressed thought, "but Emily loved Ravenswood. Why--?" Evidently he was endeavoring to answer a question that baffled him.