Sentiments like these, coming to Irene as they did while she was yet chafing under a recent collision with her husband, and while the question of submission was yet an open one, were near proving a quick-match to a slumbering mine in her spirit, and had not her husband been in a more passive state than usual, there might have been an explosion which would have driven them asunder with such terrific force that reunion must have been next to impossible.
It would have been well if their effects had died with the passing away of that immediate danger. But as we think so we incline to act. Our sentiments are our governors; and of all imperious tyrants, false sentiments are the most ruthless. The beautiful, the true, the good they trample out of the heart with a fiery malignity that knows no touch of pity; for the false is the bitter enemy of the true and makes with it no terms of amity.
The coldness which had followed their reconciliation might have gradually given way before the warmth of genuine love, if Irene had been left to the counsels of her own heart; if there had been no enemy to her peace, like Mrs. Talbot, to throw in wild, vague thoughts of oppression and freedom among the half-developed opinions which were forming in her mind. As it was, a jealous scrutiny of words and actions took the place of that tender confidence which was coming back to Irene's heart, and she became watchfully on the alert; not, as she might have been, lovingly ministrant.
Only a few days were permitted to elapse after the call of this unsafe friend before Irene returned the visit, and spent two hours with her, conning over the subject of woman's rights and woman's wrongs. Mrs. Talbot introduced her to writers on the vexed question, who had touched the theme with argument, sarcasm, invective and bold, brilliant, specious generalities; read to her from their books; commented on their deductions, and uttered sentiments on the subject of reform and resistance as radical as the most extreme.
"We must agitate--we must act--we must do good deeds of valor and self-sacrifice for our sex," she said, in her enthusiastic way. "Every woman, whether of high or low condition, of humble powers or vigorous intellect, has a duty to perform, and she is false to the honor and rights of her sex if she do not array herself on the side of freedom. You have great responsibilities resting upon you, my young friend. I say it soberly, even solemnly. Responsibilities which may not be disregarded without evil consequences to yourself and others. You are young, clear-thoughted and resolute--have will, purpose and endurance. You are married to a young man destined, I think, to make his mark in the world; but, as I have said before, a false education has given him erroneous ideas on this great and important subject. Now what is your duty?"
The lady paused as if for an answer.
"What is your duty, my dear young friend?" she repeated.
"I will answer for you," she continued. "Your duty is to be true to yourself and to your sisters in bonds."
"In bonds! I in bonds!" Mrs. Talbot touched her to the quick.
"Are you a free woman?" The inquiry was calmly made.
Irene started to the floor and moved across the room, then turned and came back again. Her cheeks burned and her eyes flashed. She stood before Mrs. Talbot and looked at her steadily.
"The question has disturbed you?" said the lady.
"It has," was the brief answer.
"Why should it disturb you?"
Irene did not answer.
"I can tell you."
"You are in bonds, and feel the fetters."
"It is so, my poor child, and you know it as well as I do. From the beginning of our acquaintance I have seen this; and more than once, in our various conversations, you have admitted the fact."
Irene let her thoughts run back through the sentiments and opinions which she had permitted herself to utter in the presence of her friend, to see if she had so fully betrayed herself. She could not recall the distinct language, but it was plain that Mrs. Talbot had her secret, and therefore reserve on the subject was useless.
"Well," she said, after standing for some time before Mrs. Talbot, "if I am in bonds, it is not because I do not worship freedom."
"I know that," was the quickly-spoken answer. "And it is because I wish to see you a free woman that I point to your bonds. Now is the time to break them--now, before years have increased their strength--now, before habit has made tyranny a part of your husband's nature. He is your ruler, because the social sentiment is in favor of manly domination. There is hope for you now, and now only. You must begin the work of reaction while both are young. Let your husband understand, from this time, that you are his equal. It may go a little hard at first. He will, without doubt, hold on to the reins, for power is sweet; but if there be true love for you in his heart, he will yield in the struggle, and make you his companion and equal, as you should be. If his love be not genuine, why--"
She checked herself. It might be going a step too far with her young friend to utter the thought that was coming to her lips. Irene did not question her as to what more she was about to say. There was stimulus enough in the words already spoken. She felt all the strength of her nature rising into opposition.
"Yes, I will be free," she said in her heart. "I will be his equal, not his slave."
"It may cost you some pain in the beginning," resumed the tempter.
"I am not afraid of pain," said Irene.
"A brave heart spoke there. I wish we had more on our side with the stuff you are made of. There would be hope of a speedier reform than is now promised."
"Heaven send the reform right early! It cannot come a day too soon." Irene spoke with rising ardor.
"It will be our own fault," said Mrs. Talbot, "if we longer bow our necks to the yoke or move obedient to our task-masters. Let us lay the axe to the very root of this evil and hew it down."
"Even if we are crushed by the tree in falling," responded Irene, in the spirit of a martyr.
From this interview our wrong-directed young friend went home with more clearly defined purposes touching her conduct toward her husband than she had hitherto entertained. She saw him in a new aspect, and in a character more definitely outlined. He loomed up in more colossal proportions, and put on sterner features. All disguises were thrown away, and he stood forth, not a loving husband, but the tyrant of her home. Weak, jealous, passion-tost child! how this strong, self-willed, false woman of the world had bewildered her thoughts, and pushed her forth into an arena of strife, where she could only beat about blindly, and hurt herself and others, yet accomplish no good.
From her interview with Mrs. Talbot, Irene went home, bearing more distinct ideas of resistance in her mind. In this great crisis of her life she felt that she needed just such a friend, who could give direction to her striving spirit, and clothe for her in thoughts the native impulses that she knew only as a love of freedom. She believed now that she understood herself better than before, and comprehended more clearly her duties and responsibilities.
It was in this mood of mind that she met her husband when he returned in the afternoon from his office. Happily for them, he was in a quiet, non-resistant state, and in a special good-humor with himself and the world. Professional matters had shaped themselves to his wishes, and left his mind at peace. Irene had, in consequence, everything pretty much her own way. Hartley did not fail to notice a certain sharpness of manner about her, and a certain spiciness of sentiment when the subject of their intermittent talks verged on themes relating to women; but he felt no inclination whatever for argument or opposition, and so her arrows struck a polished shield, and went gracefully and harmlessly aside.
"Shall we go and have a merry laugh with Matthews to-night?" said Hartley, as they sat at the tea-table. "I feel just in the humor."
"No, I thank you," replied Irene, curtly. "I don't incline to the laughing mood, just now."
"Laughing is contagious," suggested Hartley.
"I shall not take the infection to-night." And she balanced her little head with the perpendicularity of a plumb-line.
"Can't I persuade you?" He was in a real good-humor, and smiled as he said this.
"No, sir. You may waive both argument and persuasion. I am in earnest."
"And when a woman is in earnest you might as well essay to move the Pillars of Hercules."
"You might as well in my case," answered Irene, without any softening of tone or features.
"Then I shall not attempt, after a hard day's work, a task so difficult. I am in a mood for rest and quiet," said the young husband.
"Perhaps," he resumed, after a little pause, "you may feel somewhat musical. There is to be a vocal and instrumental concert to-night. What say you to going there? I think I could enjoy some good singing, mightily."
Irene closed her lips firmly, and shook her head.
"Not musically inclined this evening?"
"No," she replied.
"Got a regular stay-at-home feeling?"
"Enough," said Hartley, with unshadowed good-humor, "we will stay at home."
And he sung a snatch of the familiar song--"There's no place like home," rising, as he did so, from the table, and offering Irene his arm. She could do no less than accept the courtesy, and so they went up to their cozy sitting-room arm-in-arm--he chatty, and she almost silent.
"What's the matter, petty?" he asked, in a fond way, after trying for some time, but in vain, to draw her out into pleasant conversation. "Ain't you well to-night?"
Now, so far as her bodily state was concerned, Irene never felt better in her life. So she could not plead indisposition.
"I feel well," she replied, glancing up into her husband's face in a cold, embarrassed kind of way.
"Then your looks belie your condition--that's all. If it isn't the body, it must be the mind. What's gone wrong, darling?"
The tenderness in Hartley's tones was genuine, and the heart of Irene leaped to his voice with a responsive throe. But was he not her master and tyrant? How that thought chilled the sweet impulse!
"Nothing wrong," she answered, with a sadness of tone which she was unable to conceal. "But I feel dull, and cannot help it."
"You should have gone with me to laugh with Matthews. He would have shaken all these cobwebs from your brain. Come! it is not yet too late."
But the rebel spirit was in her heart; and to have acceded to he husband's wishes would have been to submit herself to control.
"You must excuse me," she replied. "I feel as if home were the better place for me to-night."
An impatient answer was on her tongue; but she checked its utterance, and spoke from a better spirit.
Not even as a lover had Hartley shown more considerate tenderness than marked all his conduct toward Irene this evening. His mind was in a clear-seeing region, and his feelings tranquil. The sphere of her antagonism failed to reach him. He did not understand the meaning of her opposition to his wishes, and so pride, self-love and self-will remained quiescent. How peacefully unconscious was he of the fact that his feet were standing over a mine, and that a single spark of passion struck from him would have sprung that mine in fierce explosion! He read to Irene from a volume which he knew to be a favorite; talked to her about Ivy Cliff and her father; suggested an early visit to the pleasant old river home; and thus charmed away the evil spirits which had found a lodgment in her bosom.
But how different it might have been!