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CHAPTER 74 'I AM DISGRACED AND SHAMED.'
Soon after the commencement of the Session Arthur Fletcher became a constant visitor in Manchester Square, dining with the old barrister almost constantly on Sundays, and not unfrequently on other days when the House and his general engagements would permit it. Between him and Emily's father there was no secret and no misunderstanding. Mr Wharton quite understood that the young member of Parliament was earnestly purposed to marry his daughter, and Fletcher was sure of all the assistance and support which Mr Wharton could give him. The name of Lopez was very rarely used between them. It had been tacitly agreed that there was no need that it should be mentioned. The man had come like a destroying angel between them and their fondest hopes. Neither could ever be what he would have been had the man never appeared to destroy their happiness. But the man had gone away, not without a tragedy that was appalling; - and each thought that, as regarded him, he and the person in whom they were interested could be taught to seem to forget him. 'It is not love,' said the father, 'but a feeling of shame.' Arthur Fletcher shook his head, not quite agreeing with this. It was not that he feared that she loved the memory of her late husband. Such love was, he thought, impossible. But there was, he believed, something more than the feeling which her father described as shame. There was pride also; - a determination in her own bosom not to confess the fault she had made in giving herself to him whom she must now think to have been so much the least worthy of her two suitors. 'Her fortune will not be what I once promised you,' said the old man plaintively.
'I do not remember that I ever asked you as to her fortune,' Arthur replied.
'Certainly not. If you had I would not have told you. But as I named a sum, it is right that I should explain to you that that man succeeded in lessening it by six or seven thousand pounds.'
'If that were all!'
'And I have promised Sir Alured that Everett, as his heir, should have the use of a considerable portion of his share without waiting for my death. It is odd that the one of my children from whom I certainly expected the greater trouble should have fallen so entirely on his feet; and that the other - ; well, let us hope for the best. Everett seems to have taken up with Wharton as though it belonged to him already. And Emily - ! Well, my dear boy, let us hope that it may come right yet. You are not drinking your wine. Yes, - pass the bottle. I'll have another before I go upstairs.'
In this way the time went by till Emily returned to town. The Ministry had just then resigned, but I think that 'this great reactionary success,' as it was called by the writer in the "People's Banner", affected one member of the Lower House much less than the return to London of Mrs Lopez. Arthur Fletcher had determined that he would renew his suit as soon as a year should have expired since the tragedy which had made his love a widow;-and that year had now passed away. He had known the day well,-as had she, when she passed the morning weeping in her own room at Wharton. Now he questioned himself whether a year would suffice, - whether both in mercy to her and with a view of realizing his own hopes he should give her some longer time for recovery. But he had told himself that it should be done at the end of a year, and as he had allowed no one to talk him out of his word, so neither could he be untrue to it himself. But it became to him a deep matter of business, a question of great difficulty, how he should arrange the necessary interview,-whether he should plead his case with her at their first meeting, or whether he had better allow her to become accustomed to his presence in the house. His mother had attempted to ridicule him, because he was, as she said, afraid of a woman. He well remembered that he had never been afraid of Emily Wharton when they had been quite young, - little more than a boy and girl together. Then he had told her of his love over and over again, and had found almost a comfortable luxury in urging her to say a word, which she had never indeed said, but which probably in those days he still hoped she would say. And occasionally he had feigned to be angry with her, and had tempted her on to little quarrels with a boyish idea that a quick reconciliation would perhaps throw her into his arms. But now it seemed to him that an age had passed since those days. His love had certainly not faded. There had never been a moment when that had been on the wing. But now the azure plumage of his love had become grey as the wings of a dove, and the gorgeousness of his dreams had sobered into hopes and fears which were a constant burden to his heart. There was time enough, still time enough for happiness if she would yield; - and time enough for the dull pressure of unsatisfied aspirations should she persist in her refusal.
At last he saw her, almost by accident, and that meeting certainly was not fit for the purpose of his suit. He called at Stone Buildings the day after her arrival, and found her at her father's chambers. She had come there keeping some appointment with him, and certainly had not expected to meet her lover. He was confused and hardly able to say a word to account for his presence, but she greeted him with almost sisterly affection, saying some word of Longbarns and his family, telling him how Everett, to Alured's great delight, had been sworn in as a magistrate for the County, and how at the last hunt meeting John Fletcher had been asked to take the County hounds because Lord Weobly at seventy-five had declared himself to be unable any longer to ride as a master of hounds ought to ride. All these things Arthur had of course heard, such news being too important to be kept long from him; but on none of these subjects had he much to say. He stuttered and stammered, and quickly went away; - not, however, before he had promised to come to dine as usual on the next Sunday, and not without observing that the anniversary of that fatal day of release had done something to lighten the sombre load of mourning which the widow had hitherto worn.
Yes; - he would dine there on the Sunday, but how would it be with him then? Mr Wharton never went out of the house on a Sunday evening, and could hardly be expected to leave his own drawing-room for the sake of giving a lover an opportunity. No; - he must wait till that evening should have passed, and then make the occasion for himself as best he might. The Sunday came and the dinner was eaten, and after dinner there was a single bottle of port and the single bottle of claret. 'How do you think she is looking?' asked the father. 'She was as pale as death before we got her down into the country.'
'Upon my word, sir,' said he, 'I've hardly looked at her. It is not a matter of looks now, as it used to be. It has got beyond that. It is not that I am indifferent to seeing a pretty face, or that I have no longer an opinion of my own about a woman's figure. But there grows up, I think, a longing which almost kills that consideration.'
'To me she is as beautiful as ever,' said the father proudly.
Fletcher did manage, when in the drawing-room to talk for a while about John and the hounds, and then went away, having resolved that he would come again on the very next day. Surely she would not give an order that he should be denied admittance. She had been too calm, too even, to confident of herself for that. Yes; - he would come and tell her plainly what he had to say. He would tell it with all the solemnity of which he was capable, with a few words, and those the strongest of which he could use. Should she refuse him; - as he almost knew that she would at first, - then he would tell her of her father and of the wishes of all their joint friends. 'Nothing,' he would say to her, 'nothing but personal dislike can justify you in refusing to heal many wounds.' As he fixed on these words he failed to remember how little probable it is that a lover should ever be able to use the phrases which he arranges.
On the Monday he came, and asked for Mrs Lopez, slurring over the word as best he could. The butler said his mistress was at home. Since the death of the man he had so thoroughly despised, the old servant had never called her Mrs Lopez. Arthur was shown upstairs, and found the lady he sought, - but he found Mrs Roby also. It may be remembered that Mrs Roby, after the tragedy, had been refused admittance into Mr Wharton's house. Since that there had been some correspondence, and a feeling had prevailed that the woman was not to be quarrelled with forever. 'I did not do it, papa, because of her,' Emily said with some scorn, and that scorn had procured Mrs Roby's pardon. She was now making a morning call, and suiting her conversation to the black dress of her niece. Arthur was horrified at seeing her. Mrs Roby had always been to him odious, not only as a personal enemy but as a vulgar woman. He, at any rate, attributed on her a great part of the evil that had been done, feeling sure that had there been no house round the corner, Emily Wharton would never have become Mrs Lopez. As it was he was forced to shake hands with her, and forced to listen to the funereal tone in which Mrs Roby asked him if he did not think that Mrs Lopez looked much improved since her sojourn in Hertfordshire. He shrank at the sound, and then, in order that it might not be repeated, took occasion to show that he was allowed to call his early playmate by her Christian name. Mrs Roby, thinking that she ought to check him, remarked that Mrs Lopez's return was a great thing for Mr Wharton. Thereupon Arthur Fletcher seized his hat off the ground, wished them both good-bye, and hurried out of the room. 'What a very odd manner he has taken up since he became a Member of Parliament,' said Mrs Roby.
Emily was silent for a moment, and then with an effort, - with intense pain, - she said a word or two which she thought had better be at once spoken. 'He went because he does not like to hear that name.'
'And papa does not like it. Don't say a word about it, aunt; pray don't, - but call me Emily.'
'Are you going to be ashamed of your name?'
'Never mind, aunt. If you think it wrong, you must stay away;-but I will not have papa wounded.'
'Oh; - if Mr Wharton wishes it; - of course.' That evening Mrs Roby told Dick Roby, her husband, what an old fool Mr Wharton was.
The next day quite early, Fletcher was again at the house and was again admitted upstairs. The butler, no doubt, knew well enough why he came, and also knew that the purport of his coming had at any rate the sanction of Mr Wharton. The room was empty when he was shown into it, but she came to him very soon. 'I went away yesterday rather abruptly,' he said. 'I hope you did not think me rude.'
'Your aunt was here, and I had something I wished to say but could not say it very well before her.'
'I knew that she had driven you away. You and Aunt Harriet were never great friends.'
'Never; - but I will forgive her everything. I will forgive all the injuries that have been done me if you will now do as I ask you.'
Of course she knew what it was he was about to ask. When he had left her at Longbarns without saying a word of his love, without giving her a hint whereby she might allow herself to think that he intended to renew his suit, then she had wept because it was so. Though her resolution had been quite firm as to the duty which was incumbent on her of remaining in her desolate condition of almost nameless widowhood, yet she had been unable to refrain from bitter tears because he also had seemed to see that such was her duty. But now again, knowing that the request was coming, feeling once more confident of the constancy of his love, she was urgent with herself as to that heavy duty. She would be womanly, dead to all shame, almost inhuman, were she to allow herself again to indulge in love after all the havoc she had made. She had been little more than a bride when that husband, for whom she had often been forced to blush, had been driven by the weight of his misfortunes and disgraces to destroy himself! By the marriage she had made she had overwhelmed her whole family with dishonour. She had done it with a persistency of perverse selfwill which she herself could not now look back on without wonder and horror. She, too, should have died as well as he; - only that death had not ben within the compass of her powers as of his. How the could she forget it all, and wipe it away from her mind, as she would figures from a slate with a wet towel? How could it be fit that she should again be a bride with such a spectre of a husband haunting her memory? She had known that the request was to be made when he took his sudden departure. She had known it well, when just now the servant told her that Mr Fletcher was in the drawing-room below. But she was quite certain of the answer she must make. 'I should be sorry you should ask me anything I cannot do,' she said in a very low voice.
'I will ask you nothing for which I have not your father's sanction.'
'The time has gone by, Arthur, in which I might well have been guided by my father. There comes a time when personal feelings must be stronger than a father's authority. Papa cannot see me with my own eyes, he cannot understand what I feel. It is simply this, - that he would have me to be other than I am. But I am what I have made myself.'
'You have not heard me as yet. You will hear me?'
'I have loved you ever since I was a boy.' He paused as though he expected that she would make some answer to this; but of course there was nothing she could say. 'I have been true to you since we were together almost as children.'
'It is your nature to be true.'
'In this matter, at any rate. I shall never change. I never for a moment had a doubt about my love. There never has been anyone else whom I have ventured to compare with you. Then came that great trouble. Emily, you must let me speak freely this once, as so much, to me at least, depends on it.'
'Say what you will, Arthur. Do not wound me more than you can help.'
'God knows how willingly I would heal every wound without a word if it could be done. I don't know whether you ever thought what I suffered when he came among us and robbed me, - well, I will not say robbed me of your love, because it was not mine - but took away with him that which I had been trying to win.'
'I did not think a man would feel like that.'
'Why shouldn't a man feel as well as a woman? I had set my heart on having you for my wife. Can any desire be nearer to a man than that? Then he came. Well, dearest, surely I may say that he was not worthy of you.'
'We were neither of us worthy,' she said.
'I need not tell you that we all grieved. It seemed to us down in Hertfordshire as though a black cloud had come upon us. We could not speak of you, nor yet could we be altogether silent.'
'Of course you condemned me, - as an outcast.'
'Did I write to you as though you were an outcast? Did I treat you when I saw you as an outcast? When I come to you to-day, is that proof that I think you to be an outcast? I have never deceived you, Emily.'
'Then you will believe me when I say that through it all not one word of reproach or contumely has ever passed my lips in regard to you. That you should have given yourself to one whom I could think worthy of you, was, of course, a great sorrow. Had he been a prince of men it would have of course been a sorrow to me. How it went with you during your married life I will not ask.'
'I was unhappy. I would tell you everything if I could. I was very unhappy.'
'Then came - the end.' She was now weeping with her face buried in her handkerchief. 'I would spare you if I knew how, but there are some things which must be said.'
'No; - no. I will bear it all - from you.'
'Well! His success had not lessened my love. Though then I could have no hope, - though you were utterly removed from me,-all that could not change me. There it was, - as though my arm or my leg had been taken from me. It was bad to live without an arm or a leg, but there was no help. I went on with my life and tried not to look like a whipped cur; - though John from time to time would tell me that I failed. But now; - now that is again all changed, - what would you have me do now? It may be that after all my limb may be restored to me, that I may be again as other men are, whole, and sound, and happy; - so happy! When it may possibly be within my reach am I not to look for my happiness?' He paused, but she wept on without speaking a word. 'There are those who will say that I should wait till all these signs of woe have been laid aside. But why should I wait? There has come a great blot on your life, and is it not well that it should be covered as quickly as possible?'
'It can never be covered.'
'You mean that it can never be forgotten. No doubt there are passages in our life which we cannot forget, though we bury them in the deepest silence. All this can never be driven out of your memory, - nor from mine. But it need not therefore blacken our lives. In such a condition we should not be ruled by what the world thinks.'
'Not at all. I care nothing for what the world thinks. I am below all that. It is what I think of myself, - of myself.'
'Will you think of no one else? Are any of your thoughts for me, - or for your father?'
'Oh yes; - for my father.'
'I need hardly tell you what he wishes. You must know how you can best give him back the comfort he has lost.'
'But, Arthur, even for him I cannot do everything.'
'There is one question to be asked,' he said, rising from her feet and standing before her; - 'but one; and what you do should depend entirely on the answer which you may be able truly make to that.'
This he said so solemnly that he startled her.
'What question, Arthur?'
'Do you love me?' To this question at the moment she could make no reply. 'Of course I know that you did not love me when you married him.'
'Love is not all of one kind.'
'You know what love I mean. You did not love me then. You could not have loved me, - though, perhaps, I thought I had deserved your love. But love will change and memory will some times bring back old fancies when the world has been stern and hard. When we were very young I think you loved me. Do you remember seven years ago at Longbarns, when they parted us and sent me away, because,-because we were so young? They did not tell us then, but I think you knew. I know that I knew, and went nigh to swear that I would drown myself. You loved me then, Emily.'
'I was a child then.'
'Now you are not a child. Do you love me now, - to-day? If so, give me your hand, and the past be buried in silence. All this has come and gone, and has nearly made us old. But there is life before us yet, and if you are to me as I am to you it is better that our lives should be lived together.' Then he stood before her with his hand stretched out.
'I cannot do it,' she said.
'I cannot be other than the wretched thing I have made myself.'
'But do you love me?'
'I cannot analyse my heart. Love you; - yes! I have always loved you. Everything about you is dear to me. I can triumph in your triumphs, rejoice at your joy, weep at your sorrows, be ever anxious that all good things may come to you; - but, Arthur, I cannot be your wife.'
'Not though it would make us all happy, - Fletchers and Whartons all alike?'
'Do you think I have not thought it over? Do you think that I have forgotten your first letter? Knowing your heart, as I do know it, do you imagine that I have spent a day, an hour, for months past, without asking myself what answer I should make to you if the sweet constancy of your nature should bring you again to me? I have trembled when I have heard your voice. My heart has beat at the sound of your footsteps as though it would burst! Do you think I have never told myself what I had thrown away. But it is gone, and it is not now within my reach.'
'It is, it is,' he said, throwing himself on his knees, and twining his arms around her.'
'No; - no; - no; - never. I am disgraced and shamed. I have lain among the pots till I am foul and blackened. Take your arms away. They shall not be defiled,' she said as she sprang to her feet. 'You shall not have the thing that he has left.'
'Emily; - it is the only thing in all the world that I crave.'
'Be a man and conquer your love, - as I will. Get it under your feet and press it to death. Tell yourself that it is shameful and must be abandoned. That you, Arthur Fletcher, should marry the widow of that man, - the woman that he had thrust so far into the mire that she can never again be clean; - you, the chosen one, the bright star among us all; - you, whose wife should be the fairest, the purest, the tenderest of us all, a flower that has yet been hardly breathed on. While I - Arthur,' she said, 'I know my duty better than that. I will not seek an escape from my punishment in that way, - nor will I allow you to destroy yourself. You have my word as a woman that it shall not be so. Now I do not mind your knowing whether I love you or no.' He stood silent before her, not able for the moment to go on with his prayer. 'And now,' she said, 'God bless you, and give you some fair and happy wife. And, Arthur, do not come again to me. If you will let it be so, I shall have delight in seeing you;-but not if you come as you have come now. And, Arthur, spare me with papa. Do not let him think that it is all my fault that I cannot do the thing that he wishes.' Then she left the room before he could say another word to her.
But it was all her fault. No; - in that direction he could not spare her. It must be told to her father, though he doubted his own power of describing all that had been said. 'Do not come again to me,' she had said. At the moment he had been left speechless; but if there was one thing fixed in his mind, it was the determination to come again. He was sure now, not only of love that might have sufficed, - but of hot, passionate love. She had told him that her heart had beat at his footsteps, and that she had trembled as she listened to his voice, - and yet she had expected that he would not come again! But there was a violence of decision about the woman which made him dread that he might still come in vain. She was so warped from herself by the conviction of her great mistake, so prone to take shame to herself for her own error, so keenly alive to the degradation to which she had been submitted, that it might yet be impossible to teach her that, though her husband had been vile and she mistaken, yet she had not been soiled by his baseness.
He went at once to the old barrister's chambers and told him the result of the meeting. 'She is still a fool,' said the father, not understanding at second-hand the depths of his daughter's feeling.
'No, sir, - not that. She felt herself degraded by his degradation. If it be possible we must save her from that.'
'She did degrade herself.'
'Not as she means it. She is not degraded in my eyes.'
'Why should she not take the only means in her power of rescuing herself and rescuing us all from the evil that she did? She owes it you, me, and to her brother.'
'I would hardly wish her to come to me in payment of such a debt.'
'There is no room left,' said Mr Wharton angrily, 'for soft sentimentality. Well; - she must take her bed as she makes it. It is very hard on me, I know. Considering what she used to be, it is marvellous to me that she should have so little idea left of doing her duty to others.'
Arthur Fletcher found that the barrister was at the moment too angry to hear reason, or to be made to understand anything of the feelings of mixed love and admiration with which he was animated at the moment. He was obliged therefore to content himself with assuring the father that he did not intend to give up the pursuit of his daughter.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER 75 THE GREAT WHARTON ALLIANCE.