He did not insist on their marriage taking place at once, although in her mood of dull indifference she would not have objected to anything he might have proposed. It was his hope that after a while she might become calmer, and more cheerful. He hoped to take in his at the altar a hand a little less like that of a dead person.
Introducing her as his betrothed wife, he found her very pleasant lodgings with an excellent family, where he was acquainted, provided her with books and a piano, took her constantly out to places of amusement, and, in every way which his ingenuity could suggest, endeavoured to distract and divert her. To all this she offered neither objection nor suggestion, nor did she, beyond the usual conventional responses, show the slightest gratitude. It was as if she took it for granted that he understood, as she did, that all this was being done for himself, and not for her, she being quite past having anything done for her. Her only recognition of the reverential and considerate tenderness which he showed her was an occasional air of wonder that cut him to the quick. Shame, sorrow, and despair had incrusted her heart with a hard shell, impenetrable to genial emotions. Nor would all his love help him to get over the impression that she was no longer an acquaintance and familiar friend, but somehow a stranger.
So far as he could find out, she did absolutely nothing all day except to sit brooding. He could not discover that she so much as opened the books and magazines he sent her, and, to the best of his knowledge, she made little more use of her piano. His calls were sadly dreary affairs. He would ask perhaps half a dozen questions, which he had spent much care in framing with a view to interesting her. She would reply in monosyllables, with sometimes a constrained smile or two, and then, after sitting a while in silence, he would take his hat and bid her good-evening.
She always sat nowadays in an attitude which he had never seen her adopt in former times, her hands lying in her lap before her, and an absent expression on her face. As he looked at her sitting thus, and recalled her former vivacious self-assertion and ever-new caprices, he was overcome with the sadness of the contrast.
Whenever he asked her about her health, she replied that she was well; and, indeed, she had that appearance. Grief is slow to sap the basis of a healthy physical constitution. She retained all the contour of cheek and rounded fulness of figure which had first captivated his fancy in the days, as it seemed, so long ago.
He took her often to the theatre, because in the action of the play she seemed at times momentarily carried out of herself. Once, when they were coming home from a play, she called attention to some feature of it. It was the first independent remark she had made since he had brought her to her lodgings. In itself it was of no importance at all, but he was overcome with delight, as people are delighted with the first words that show returning interest in earthly matters on the part of a convalescing friend whose soul has long been hovering on the borders of death. It would sound laughable to explain how much he made of that little remark, how he spun it out, and turned it in and out, and returned to it for days afterward. But it remained isolated. She did not make another.
Nevertheless, her mind was not so entirely torpid as it appeared, nor was she so absolutely self-absorbed. One idea was rising day by day out of the dark confusion of her thoughts, and that was the goodness and generosity of her lover. In this appreciation there was not the faintest glows of gratitude. She left herself wholly out of the account as only one could do with whom wretchedness has abolished for the time all interest in self. She was personally past being benefited. Her sense of his love and generosity was as disinterested as if some other person had been their object. Her admiration was such as one feels for a hero of history or fiction.
Often, when all within her seemed growing hard and still and dead, she felt that crying would make her feel better. At such times, to help her to cry, for the tears did not flow easily, she would sit down to the piano, the only times she ever touched it, and play over some of the simple airs associated with her life at home. Sometimes, after playing and crying a while, she would lapse into sweetly mournful day-dreams of how happy she might have been if she had returned Henry's love in those old days. She wondered in a puzzled way why it was that she had not. It seemed so strange to her now that she could have failed in doing so. But all this time it was only as a might-have-been that she thought of loving him, as one who feels himself mortally sick thinks of what he might have done when he was well, as a life-convict thinks of what he might have done when free, as a disembodied spirit might think of what it might have done when living. The consciousness of her disgrace, ever with her, had, in the past month or two, built up an impassable wall between her past life and her present state of existence. She no longer thought of herself in the present tense, still less the future.
He had not kissed her since that kiss at their first interview, which threw her into such a paroxysm of weeping. But one evening, when she had been more silent and dull than usual, and more unresponsive to his efforts to interest her, as he rose to go he drew her a moment to his side and pressed his lips to hers, as if constrained to find some expression for the tenderness so cruelly balked of any outflow in words. He went quickly out, but she continued to stand motionless, in the attitude of one startled by a sudden discovery. There was a frightened look in her dilated eyes. Her face was flooded to the roots of her hair with a deep flush. It was a crimson most unlike the tint of blissful shame with which the cheeks announce love's dawn in happy hearts. She threw herself upon the sofa, and buried her scorched face in the pillow while her form shook with dry sobs.
Love had, in a moment, stripped the protecting cicatrice of a hard indifference from her smarting shame, and it was as if for the first time she were made fully conscious of the desperation of her condition.
The maiden who finds her stainless purity all too lustreless a gift for him she loves, may fancy what were the feelings of Madeline, as love, with its royal longing to give, was born in her heart. With what lilies of virgin innocence would she fain have rewarded her lover! but her lilies were yellow, their fragrance was stale. With what an unworn crown would she have crowned him! but she had rifled her maiden regalia to adorn an impostor. And love came to her now, not as to others, but whetting the fangs of remorse and blowing the fires of shame.
But one thing it opened her eyes to, and made certain from the first instant of her new consciousness, namely, that since she loved him she could not keep her promise to marry him. In her previous mood of dead indifference to all things, it had not mattered to her one way or the other. Reckless what became of her, she had only a feeling that seeing he had been so good he ought to have any satisfaction he could find in marrying her. But what her indifference would have abandoned to him her love could not endure the thought of giving. The worthlessness of the gift, which before had not concerned her, now made its giving impossible. While before she had thought with indifference of submitting to a love she did not return, now that she returned it the idea of being happy in it seemed to her guilty and shameless. Thus to gather the honey of happiness from her own abasement was a further degradation, compared with which she could now almost respect herself. The consciousness that she had taken pleasure in that kiss made her seem to herself a brazen thing.
Her heart ached with a helpless yearning over him for the disappointment she knew he must now suffer at her hands. She tried, but in vain, to feel that she might, after all, marry him, might do this crowning violence to her nature, and accept a shameful happiness for his sake.
One morning a bitter thing happened to her. She had slept unusually well, and her dreams had been sweet and serene, untinged by any shadow of her waking thoughts, as if, indeed, the visions intended for the sleeping brain of some fortunate woman had by mistake strayed into hers. For a while she had lain, half dozing, half awake, pleasantly conscious of the soft, warm bed, and only half emerged from the atmosphere of dreamland. As at last she opened her eyes, the newly risen sun, bright from his ocean bath, was shining into the room, and the birds were singing. A lilac bush before the window was moving in the breeze, and the shadows of its twigs were netting the sunbeams on the wall as they danced to and fro.
The spirit of the jocund morn quite carried her away, and all unthinkingly she bounded out into the room and, stood there with a smile of sheer delight upon her face. She had forgotten all about her shame and sorrow. For an instant they were as completely gone from her mind as if they had never been, and for that instant nowhere did the sun's far-reaching eye rest on a blither or more innocent face. Then memory laid its icy finger on her heart and stilled its bounding pulse. The glad smile went out, like a taper quenched in Acheron, and she fell prone upon the floor, crying with hard, dry sobs, "O God! O God! O God!"
That day, and for many days afterward, she thought again and again of that single happy instant ere memory reclaimed its victim. It was the first for so long a time, and it was so very sweet, like a drop of water to one in torment. What a heaven a life must be which had many such moments! Was it possible that once, long ago, her life had been such an one--that she could awake mornings and not be afraid of remembering? Had there ever been a time when the ravens of shame and remorse had not perched above her bed as she slept, waiting her waking to plunge their beaks afresh into her heart? That instant of happiness which had been given her, how full it had been of blithe thanks to God and sympathy with the beautiful life of the world! Surely it showed that she was not bad, that she could have such a moment. It showed her heart was pure; it was only her memory that was foul. It was in vain that she swept and washed all within, and was good, when all the while her memory, like a ditch from a distant morass, emptied its vile stream of recollections into her heart, poisoning all the issues of life.
Years before, in one of the periodical religious revivals at Newville, she had passed through the usual girlish experience of conversion. Now, indeed, was a time when the heavenly compensations to which religion invites the thoughts of the sorrowful might surely have been a source of dome relief. But a certain cruel clearness of vision, or so at least it seemed to her, made all reflections on this theme but an aggravation of her despair. Since the shadow had fallen on her life, with every day the sense of shame and grief had grown more insupportable. In proportion as her loathing of the sin had grown, her anguish on account of it had increased. It was a poison-tree which her tears watered and caused to shoot forth yet deeper roots, yet wider branches, overspreading her life with ever denser, more noxious shadows. Since, then, on earth the purification of repentance does but deepen the soul's anguish over the past, how should it be otherwise in heaven, all through eternity? The pure in heart that see God, thought the unhappy girl, must only be those that have always been so, for such as become pure by repentance and tears do but see their impurity plainer every day.
Her horror of such a heaven, where through eternity perfect purification should keep her shame undying, taught her unbelief, and turned her for comfort to that other deep instinct of humanity, which sees in death the promise of eternal sleep, rest, and oblivion. In these days she thought much of poor George Bayley, and his talk in the prayer-meeting the night before he killed himself. By the mystic kinship that had declared itself between their sorrowful destinies, she felt a sense of nearness to him greater than her new love had given or ever could give her toward Henry. She recalled how she had sat listening to George's talk that evening, pitifully, indeed, but only half comprehending what he meant, with no dim, foreboding warning that she was fated to reproduce his experience so closely. Yes, reproduce it, perhaps, God only knew, even to the end. She could not bear this always. She understood now--ah! how well--his longing for the river of Lethe whose waters give forgetfulness. She often saw his pale face in dreams, wearing the smile he wore as he lay in the coffin, a smile as if he had been washed in those waters he sighed for.