by Louisa May Alcott

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One of Sylvia's first acts when she rose was most significant. She shook down her abundant hair, carefully arranged a part in thick curls over cheeks and forehead, gathered the rest into its usual coil, and said to herself, as she surveyed her face half hidden in the shining cloud--

"It looks very sentimental, and I hate the weakness that drives me to it, but it must be done, because my face is such a traitor. Poor Geoffrey! he said I was no actress; I am learning fast."

Why every faculty seemed sharpened, every object assumed an unwonted interest, and that quiet hour possessed an excitement that made her own room and countenance look strange to her, she would not ask herself, as she paused on the threshold of the door to ascertain if her guests were stirring. Nothing was heard but the sound of regular footfalls on the walk before the door, and with an expression of relief she slowly went down. Moor was taking his morning walk bareheaded in the sun. Usually Sylvia ran to join him, but now she stood musing on the steps, until he saw and came to her. As he offered the flower always ready for her, he said smiling--

"Did the play last night so captivate you, that you go back to the curls, because you cannot keep the braids?"

"A sillier whim than that, even. I am afraid of those two people; and as I am so quick to show my feelings in my face, I intend to hide behind this veil if I get shy or troubled. Did you think I could be so artful?"

"Your craft amazes me. But, dearest child, you need not be afraid of Faith and Adam. Both already love you for my sake, and soon will for your own. Both are so much older, that they can easily overlook any little short-coming, in consideration of your youth. Sylvia, I want to tell you something about Adam. I never spoke of it before, because, although no promise of silence was asked or given, I knew he considered it a confidence. Now that it is all over, I know that I may tell my wife, and she will help me comfort him."

"Tell on, Geoffrey, I hear you."

"Well, dear, when we went gypsying long ago, on the night you and Adam lost the boat, as I sat drying your boots, and privately adoring them in spite of the mud, I made a discovery. Adam loved, was on some sort of probation, and would be married in June. He was slow to speak of it, but I understood, and last night when I went to his room with him, I asked how he had fared. Sylvia, it would have made your heart ache to have seen his face, as he said in that brief way of his--'Geoffrey, the woman I loved is married, ask me nothing more.' I never shall; but I know, by the change I see in him, that the love was very dear, the wound very deep."

"Poor Adam! how can we help him?"

"Let him do as he likes. I will take him to his old haunts, and busy him with my affairs till he forgets his own. In the evenings we will have Prue, Mark, and Jessie over here, will surround him with social influences, and make the last hours of the day the cheerfullest; then he won't lie awake and think all night, as I suspect he has been doing of late. Sylvia, I should like to see that woman; though I could find it in my heart to hate her for her perfidy to such a man."

Sylvia's head was bent as if to inhale the sweetness of the flower she held, and all her husband saw was the bright hair blowing in the wind.

"I pity her for her loss as well as hate her. Now, let us talk of something else, or my tell-tale face will betray that we have been talking of him, when we meet Adam."

They did so, and when Warwick put up his curtain, the first sight he saw, was his friend walking with his young wife under the red-leaved maples, in the sunshine. The look Moor had spoken of, came into his eyes, darkening them with the shadow of despair. A moment it gloomed there, then passed, for Honor said reproachfully to Love--"They are happy, should not that content you?"

"It shall!" answered the master of both, as he dropped the curtain and turned away.

In pursuance of his kindly plan, Moor took Adam out for a long tramp soon after breakfast, and Sylvia and Miss Dane sat down to sew. In the absence of the greater fear, Sylvia soon forgot the lesser one, and began to feel at ease to study her new relative and covet her esteem.

Faith was past thirty, shapely and tall, with much natural dignity of carriage, and a face never beautiful, but always singularly attractive from its mild and earnest character. Looking at her, one felt assured that here was a right womanly woman, gentle, just, and true; possessed of a well-balanced mind, a self-reliant soul, and that fine gift which is so rare, the power of acting as a touchstone to all who approached, forcing them to rise or fall to their true level, unconscious of the test applied. Her presence was comfortable, her voice had motherly tones in it, her eyes a helpful look. Even the soft hue of her dress, the brown gloss of her hair, the graceful industry of her hands, had their attractive influence. Sylvia saw and felt these things with the quickness of her susceptible temperament, and found herself so warmed and won, that soon it cost her an effort to withhold anything that tried or troubled her, for Faith was a born consoler, and Sylvia's heart was full.

However gloomy her day might have been she always brightened in the evening as naturally as moths begin to flutter when candles come. On the evening of this day the friendly atmosphere about her, and the excitement of Warwick's presence so affected her, that though the gayety of girlhood was quite gone she looked as softly brilliant as some late flower that has gathered the summer to itself and gives it out again in the bloom and beauty of a single hour.

When tea was over, for heroes and heroines must eat if they are to do anything worth the paper on which their triumphs and tribulations are recorded, the women gathered about the library table, work in hand, as female tongues go easier when their fingers are occupied. Sylvia left Prue and Jessie to enjoy Faith, and while she fabricated some trifle with scarlet silk and an ivory shuttle, she listened to the conversation of the gentlemen who roved about the room till a remark of Prue's brought the party together.

"Helen Chesterfield has run away from her husband in the most disgraceful manner."

Mark and Moor drew near, Adam leaned on the chimney-piece, the workers paused, and having produced her sensation, Prue proceeded to gratify their curiosity as briefly as possible, for all knew the parties in question and all waited anxiously to hear particulars.

"She married a Frenchman old enough to be her father, but very rich. She thought she loved him, but when she got tired of her fine establishment, and the novelties of Paris, she found she did not, and was miserable. Many of her new friends had lovers, so why should not she; and presently she began to amuse herself with this Louis Gustave Isadore Theodule de Roueville--There's a name for a Christian man! Well, she began in play, grew in earnest, and when she could bear her domestic trouble no longer she just ran away, ruining herself for this life, and really I don't know but for the next also."

"Poor soul! I always thought she was a fool, but upon my word I pity her," said Mark.

"Remember she was very young, so far away from her mother, with no real friend to warn and help her, and love is so sweet. No wonder she went."

"Sylvia, how can you excuse her in that way? She should have done her duty whether she loved the old gentleman or not, and kept her troubles to herself in a proper manner. You young girls think so much of love, so little of moral obligations, decorum, and the opinions of the world, you are not fit judges of the case. Mr. Warwick agrees with me, I am sure."

"Not in the least."

"Do you mean to say that Helen should have left her husband?"

"Certainly, if she could not love him."

"Do you also mean to say that she did right to run off with that Gustave Isadore Theodule creature?"

"By no means. It is worse than folly to attempt the righting of one wrong by the commission of another."

"Then what in the world should she have done?"

"She should have honestly decided which she loved, have frankly told the husband the mistake both had made, and demanded her liberty. If the lover was worthy, have openly married him and borne the world's censures. If not worthy, have stood alone, an honest woman in God's eyes, whatever the blind world might have thought."

Prue was scandalized to the last degree, for with her marriage was more a law than a gospel; a law which ordained that a pair once yoked should abide by their bargain, be it good or ill, and preserve the proprieties in public no matter how hot a hell their home might be for them and for their children.

"What a dreadful state society would be in if your ideas were adopted! People would constantly be finding out that they were mismatched, and go running about as if playing that game where every one changes places. I'd rather die at once than live to see such a state of things as that," said the worthy spinster.

"So would I, and recommend prevention rather than a dangerous cure."

"I really should like to hear your views, Mr. Warwick, for you quite take my breath away."

Much to Sylvia's surprise Adam appeared to like the subject, and placed his views at Prue's disposal with alacrity.

"I would begin at the beginning, and teach young people that marriage is not the only aim and end of life, yet would fit them for it, as for a sacrament too high and holy to be profaned by a light word or thought. Show them how to be worthy of it and how to wait for it. Give them a law of life both cheerful and sustaining; a law that shall keep them hopeful if single, sure that here or hereafter they will find that other self and be accepted by it; happy if wedded, for their own integrity of heart will teach them to know the true god when he comes, and keep them loyal to the last."

"That is all very excellent and charming, but what are the poor souls to do who haven't been educated in this fine way?" asked Prue.

"Unhappy marriages are the tragedies of our day, and will be, till we learn that there are truer laws to be obeyed than those custom sanctions, other obstacles than inequalities of fortune, rank, and age. Because two persons love, it is not always safe or wise for them to marry, nor need it necessarily wreck their peace to live apart. Often what seems the best affection of our hearts does more for us by being thwarted than if granted its fulfilment and prove a failure which embitters two lives instead of sweetening one."

He paused there, but Prue wanted a clearer answer, and turned to Faith, sure that the woman would take her own view of the matter.

"Which of us is right, Miss Dane, in Helen's case?"

"I cannot venture to judge the young lady, knowing so little of her character or the influences that have surrounded her, and believing that a certain divine example is best for us to follow at such times. I agree with Mr. Warwick, but not wholly, for his summary mode of adjustment would not be quite just nor right in all cases. If both find that they do not love, the sooner they part the wiser; if one alone makes the discovery the case is sadder still, and harder for either to decide. But as I speak from observation only my opinions are of little worth."

"Of great worth, Miss Dane; for to women like yourself observation often does the work of experience, and despite your modesty I wait to hear the opinions."

Warwick spoke, and spoke urgently, for the effect of all this upon Sylvia was too absorbing a study to be relinquished yet. As he turned to her, Faith gave him an intelligent glance, and answered like one speaking with intention and to some secret but serious issue--

"You shall have them. Let us suppose that Helen was a woman possessed of a stronger character, a deeper nature; the husband a younger, nobler man; the lover truly excellent, and above even counselling the step this pair have taken. In a case like that the wife, having promised to guard another's happiness, should sincerely endeavor to do so, remembering that in making the joy of others we often find our own, and that having made so great a mistake the other should not bear all the loss. If there be a strong attachment on the husband's part, and he a man worthy of affection and respect, who has given himself confidingly, believing himself beloved by the woman he so loves, she should leave no effort unmade, no self-denial unexacted, till she has proved beyond all doubt that it is impossible to be a true wife. Then, and not till then, has she the right to dissolve the tie that has become a sin, because where no love lives inevitable suffering and sorrow enter in, falling not only upon guilty parents, but the innocent children who may be given them."

"And the lover, what of him?" asked Adam, still intent upon his purpose, for, though he looked steadily at Faith, he knew that Sylvia drove the shuttle in and out with a desperate industry that made her silence significant to him.

"I would have the lover suffer and wait; sure that, however it may fare with him, he will be the richer and the better for having known the joy and pain of love."

"Thank you." And to Mark's surprise Warwick bowed gravely, and Miss Dane resumed her work with a preoccupied air.

"Well, for a confirmed celibate, it strikes me you take a remarkable interest in matrimony," said Mark. "Or is it merely a base desire to speculate upon the tribulations of your fellow-beings, and congratulate yourself upon your escape from them?"

"Neither; I not only pity and long to alleviate them, but have a strong desire to share them, and the wish and purpose of my life for the last year has been to marry."

Outspoken as Warwick was at all times and on all subjects, there was something in this avowal that touched those present, for with the words a quick rising light and warmth illuminated his whole countenance, and the energy of his desire tuned his voice to a key which caused one heart to beat fast, one pair of eyes to fill with sudden tears. Moor could not see his friend's face, but he saw Mark's, divined the indiscreet inquiry hovering on his lips, and arrested it with a warning gesture.

A pause ensued, during which each person made some mental comment on the last speech, and to several of the group that little moment was a memorable one. Remembering the lost love Warwick had confessed to him, Moor thought with friendliest regret--"Poor Adam, he finds it impossible to forget." Reading the truth in the keen delight the instant brought her, Sylvia cried out within herself, "Oh, Geoffrey, forgive me, for I love him!" and Warwick whispered to that impetuous heart of his, "Be still, we have ventured far enough."

Prue spoke first, very much disturbed by having her prejudices and opinions opposed, and very anxious to prove herself in the right.

"Mark and Geoffrey look as if they agreed with Mr. Warwick in his--excuse me if I say, dangerous ideas; but I fancy the personal application of them would change their minds. Now, Mark, just look at it; suppose some one of Jessie's lovers should discover an affinity for her, and she for him, what would you do?"

"Shoot him or myself, or all three, and make a neat little tragedy of it."

"There is no getting a serious answer from you, and I wonder I ever try. Geoffrey, I put the case to you; if Sylvia should find she adored Julian Haize, who fell sick when she was married, you know, and should inform you of that agreeable fact some fine day, should you think it quite reasonable and right to say, 'Go, my dear, I'm very sorry, but it can't be helped.'"

The way in which Prue put the case made it impossible for her hearers not to laugh. But Sylvia held her breath while waiting for her husband's answer. He was standing behind her chair, and spoke with the smile still on his lips, too confident to harbor even a passing fancy.

"Perhaps I ought to be generous enough to do so, but not being a Jaques, with a convenient glacier to help me out of the predicament, I am afraid I should be hard to manage. I love but few, and those few are my world; so do not try me too hardly, Sylvia."

"I shall do my best, Geoffrey."

She dropped her shuttle as she spoke, and stooping to pick it up, down swept the long curls over either cheek; thus, when she fell to work again, nothing of her face was visible but a glimpse of forehead, black lashes and faintly smiling mouth. Moor led the conversation to other topics, and was soon deep in an art discussion with Mark and Miss Dane, while Prue and Jessie chatted away on that safe subject, dress. But Sylvia worked silently, and Warwick still leaned there watching the busy hand as if he saw something more than a pretty contrast between the white fingers and the scarlet silk.

When the other guests had left, and Faith and himself had gone to their rooms, Warwick, bent on not passing another sleepless night full of unprofitable longings, went down again to get a book. The library was still lighted, and standing there alone he saw Sylvia, wearing an expression that startled him. Both hands pushed back and held her hair away as if she scorned concealment from herself. Her eyes seemed fixed with a despairing glance on some invisible disturber of her peace. All the light and color that made her beautiful were gone, leaving her face worn and old, and the language of both countenance and attitude was that of one suddenly confronted with some hard fact, some heavy duty, that must be accepted and performed.

This revelation lasted but a moment, Moor's step came down the hall, the hair fell, the anguish passed, and nothing but a wan and weary face remained. But Warwick had seen it, and as he stole away unperceived he pressed his hands together, saying mournfully within himself, "I was mistaken. God help us all."

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