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I REACHED the cliff that overlooked the rocks, and stood a moment staring out on that image of eternity: the infinite waters, seasonless, changeless, boundless. The tide was still coming in, with that slow, resistless invasion of the land which is like the closing in of death upon the borders of life. In successive plunges, it pounded on the outer reef; and brawled foaming in over the broken granite shore, lifting and tossing the sea-weed of the bowlders, which spread and swayed before it like the hair of drowned Titans, and lunged into the hollow murmuring caverns, to suck back again, and pull down a stretch of gravelly beach, with a long snarl of the pebbles torn from their beds. A mist was coming up from the farther ocean; and the sails on the horizon were melting into it.
I saw my wife down on the rocks near the water, with Nevil; on a height nearer me stood Mrs. Faulkner, fronting seaward, a solitary figure that looked wistful on the peak that lifted and defined her against the curtain of the waters. She was quite motionless, like a statue there. She stirred, and exchanged with those below gesticulations of the gay, meaningless sort which people make one another for no reason in the presence of scenes of natural grandeur. She faced about, and at sight of me began instantly to run toward me. I waved to her not to come, and hurried down the rocks to meet her. But I could not stop her, and she was quite breathless when we reached each other.
"What--what is it?" she gasped.
"Nothing whatever!" I returned. "Doctor Wingate is with Mr. Faulkner, and I've profited by the opportunity to come off and admire your rocks. Will you tell me how my wife ever got down there alive, or expects to get back?"
"Does he want me? Did the doctor send for me?"
"Not just at present," I answered her first question. "He asked for you, but he said there was no occasion for hurry."
"Oh, then, I'll go at once," she said, quite as if I had begged her not to lose a moment.
My wife and Nevil had now caught sight of us together, and started excitedly up the rocks. I waved and beckoned to them in vain; it was a panic. I laughed to see Nevil clamber upward forgetful of my wife, and then, recollecting her, go back, and pull her after him. At one point of his progress he lost his balance, and rolled down to her feet. Mrs. Faulkner laughed hysterically with me, and then began to cry.
"He's up again--he isn't hurt!" I shouted. "Good heavens! What an unnecessary excitement! Didn't you all expect me to come? Did you suppose I could come invisibly?"
"No--no! But we expected Mr. Faulkner with you!"
"Yes, that's all right. But he preferred to remain with the doctor. I should have staid myself; if I could have imagined the trouble I was going to make."
"I will run on," she said. "You can wait for them."
"Why, there's no occasion for running." But she had already started, and was flying down the long slope that rose to the cliff, and I had no choice but to wait, and try to keep the others from following her at the same breakneck speed. I was getting angry, and my temper was not improved when my wife called out as soon as she was within ear-shot, "What is it? What is it? Has anything happened?"
"No! Nothing whatever!"
"Then what made you wave to us? You have almost killed us!"
"I waved, to stop you."
She did not regard the words. "What is Mrs. Faulkner running so, for?"
"You'd better ask her, if you ever overtake her. Idon't know. I told her the doctor said she needn't hurry, and she started off like the wind."
"Oh my goodness! Is the doctor there?"
"Really, my dear--" I began; but Nevil interposed in time.
"We rather expected him to-day," he said to my wife.
"Oh, yes! Mr. Faulkner said so," she recollected. "But of course Mrs. Faulkner is so anxious about her husband that she can t bear to lose a word of what the doctor says to him."
"Well, that's something intelligible," I said, as we moved slowly after her: she was just vanishing into the wilding growth of trees that skirted the old garden. "But you can imagine my astonishment in coming up with a reassuring message, to have it act upon her like a fire-alarm. However, my calming presence seems to have had that effect upon everybody."
Nevil did not concern himself with my personal grievance. In that tumble of his he must have fallen upon some scene of extinct revelry, for he carried on his back a collection of broken egg-shells, clam-shells, bits of charred drift-wood, burnt seaweed, and other vestiges of a former clam-bake. "Allow me!" I said, and I brushed some of them oft' as he walked and talked along unheeding.
"No one can imagine," he said, "the perpetual tension of her anxiety, her incessant devotion."
"Oh, I can!" said my wife, with a meritorious effect of being one of the true faith as regarded Mrs. Faulkner, and of excluding me tacitly from the communion, which I found much harder to bear than Nevil's indifference.
"Oh," I said, coolly, "isn't it such as any woman would feel in her circumstances?"
My wife gave me a look that I should have deserved, perhaps, if I had blasphemed.
"No one," said Nevil, "was ever in quite such painful circumstances. If you had seen the strain she is under, as I have, for a whole year, you would understand this."
"Yes, yes. Of course. It's as painful as it can be; but it isn't more painful than the case of many another woman who has seen her husband suffering, and dying by moments under her eyes." I obeyed a perverse impulse to go on and say, though I felt my wife's eyes dwelling in horrified reproach upon me, "I don't mean to depreciate Mrs. Faulkner in any sense, or to question the exquisite poignancy of her trials and her self-sacrifice."
"But you do!" said my wife. "You do both! You are talking of something you don't know about. If you did, you couldn't--or, I hope at least you wouldn't--talk so."
Nevil said, with the humane wish to mitigate the effect of her severity, "Mrs. March has divined the peculiarly painful feature in the case. It isn't a thing we should have ventured to speak of; if we hadn't somehow seemed to approach it simultaneously."
"You mean," I said, "his aversion to her?"
"Yes!" answered Nevil, in astonishment. "Have you--have you noticed it, too?"
"From the first moment I saw them together. But it wasn't a thing I could make sure of until now. I suppose I was waiting to approach it simultaneously, too."
Nevil did not heed the little jibe, and my wife noticed it only to contemn it with a look. "And how do you account for it?" he implored. "How can you explain such a terrible thing? That he should have conceived this unkindness, this repulsion for that hapless creature, whose whole existence is centred in her love of him? Ah, you haven't seen--There have been times--I suppose I am speaking to friends of his who feel exactly as I do about him?"
"Oh, yes, indeed!" cried my wife, as one in authority for both of us.
"There have been times, within the past six months, and especially during the past month, when, if I hadn't known it was the same man, I could hardly have believed it was Faulkner, in his treatment of her."
"Perhaps it wasn't Faulkner," I suggested.
"You mean that--"
"He isn't himself. You mentioned it."
"Yes. I should be glad to believe that, sometimes, dreadful as it is. It's so much less dreadful than the idea that he could change toward her in this hour of their dire need and mutual helplessness; and should leave her widowed of his love before she is widowed of his life." Nevil went on: "You couldn't at all appreciate the situation unless you had known them together from the beginning of their acquaintance, as I have. In fact, I was the means of bringing them together; at least I introduced them to each other. With him it was a case of love at first sight. He was much older than she--ten or twelve years; but I don't believe anybody had ever struck Faulkner's fancy before, in spite of all that talk about Miss Ludlow."
"Oh," I said, with a smile of reminiscence, "everybody was expected to be in love with Miss Ludlow, and to be rejected by her."
"I'm sure Faulkner was neither," said Nevil. "You know his romantic nature. He kept it hidden in his public life, but in all his personal relations he gave it full play. He's a man who has lived the poetry that another man would have written; and he's such a great soul that I think it rather pleased him to be that one of the two who must always love the most, in every marriage. To give more love than she gave him, I think he was glad to do that, and that he looked forward to all the future as the field for winning her to a love as perfect as the trust which she had in him. He used to talk with me about it before they were married--you know how boyishly simple-hearted he always was; of course since that, not a syllable. But his victory came sooner than he could have expected. Shortly after their marriage--in fact on their wedding-journey to Europe--she fell very sick, and hovered between life and death for a long time. He made himself her nurse; he wouldn't allow any one else to come near her; he brought her back to health and the full strength of her youth. I don't know whether I ought to repeat a conjecture of Dr. Win-gate's--it's merely a conjecture, and Mrs. Faulkner of course has never heard the slightest hint of it. But you know Faulkner was always a delicate fellow, with a force that was entirely nervous; and the doctor once said to me that he might have developed the tendency he was born with, by overtasking himself in care of her. The bending over, so much, was bad; the lifting, in that posture; and then, when she left her bed, he used to carry her about in his arms, up and down stairs, and everywhere."
"Ah!" sighed my wife, "how cruel life is! But how beautiful, how grand!"
"A nature," I said, without looking at her, "that might impress the casual observer as a mere sop of sentiment, is often capable of that sort of devotion. In fact I suppose that the people we call sentimentalists are merely poets who lack the artistic faculty of expression, and have to live their poetry, as you say, instead of writing it."
I spoke to Nevil, but he replied to my wife, who cried out, "Oh, I hope she'll never know it! I hope she'll die without knowing it!"
"She's a woman who could bear to know it," he said, "if any woman ever could. But if she had known it she could not possibly have lived more singly for him than she has done ever since. I don't know," he went on in a kind of muse, "whether her devotion was love in the usual way. It has always seemed to me to ignore that, to leave that out of the question; perhaps to take that for granted, as a trivial thing that need hardly be reckoned in the large account. Their not having children, that, too, has kept them, in a way, like a young couple; they have had only each other to dedicate themselves to. I don't mean that they have not had higher interests, spiritual interests. Faulkner, you know, has always been a faithful churchman, and Mrs. Faulkner, in her way--it may be your way, too--"
"We are Unitarians," said my wife, firmly.
Nevil bowed tolerantly. "Mrs. Faulkner is a very religious person. But one could not live with them, as I have done, for months at a time, and now for a whole year past, without seeing that he was first of all things with her. She was what St. Paul describes the wife to be. She took thought of the things of this world, how she might please her husband. And she did please him. Even after his physical trouble began to show itself--or to be distressing--she made him exquisitely happy, so happy that I trembled for him, knowing that change must come to every state, and since nothing could bring him more happiness, something must bring him less. And then, this--blight came."
As he spoke Nevil knit his fingers together, and rent them apart in an anguish of pity, of sympathy.
"And you can't imagine--you have no clew--no hint--" my wife began.
"No. No. No. He keeps the horror, whatever it is, wholly to himself. I think if he could tell somebody he could escape it. But he can't! The one thing evident is, that it somehow refers to her; and so--he can't speak!" We walked on in silence a moment, and then Nevil began again, falteringly, "If--if Faulkner, if he had ever shown the slightest question of her--the least anxiety--the smallest wavering, with or without reason, you might suppose it was jealousy, in some suppressed form. But there never was anything of that! He is too noble, too magnanimous for that; he honors her too devoutly. Ah-h-h!"
He went along with his head fallen, and his hands clinging together behind him. We were very near the gate of the old garden. When he reached it he turned and said to us, "I almost dread to see them together; I always dread to see them: his aversion, and her bewilderment--"
I did not accuse the man of anything wrong in his intense feeling; in my heart I pitied him as the victim of a situation which he ought never to have witnessed, which should have been known only to the two doomed necessarily to suffer in it. I wanted to say to my wife that here was another instance, and perhaps the most odious we could ever know, of the evil of that disgusting three-cornered domestic arrangement which we had both always so cordially reprobated. But I had no chance for that. In fact we found ourselves in the presence of a scene from which we should all have retired, no doubt, if we had known just how.
Dr. Wingate was standing in the arbor, looking down at Faulkner, who sat in the place where I had left him. But now his wife sat beside him, and held his hand in her left, while she had drawn his head over on her shoulder with her right. I fancied, from the weak and fallen look of his face, with its closed eyes, that he had just recovered from one of those agonies.
The stir of our feet, or rather the cessation of it as we came involuntarily to a stop in the grass, roused the group in the arbor. Dr. Wingate and Mrs. Faulkner turned their heads toward us; Faulkner opened his eyes. He remained looking a moment, as if he did not see us. Then his gaze seemed to grow and centre upon Nevil. He flung his wife's hand away, and started suddenly to his feet, and made a pace toward us.
She rose too, and "Ah, Douglas!" she cried out.
He put his hand on her breast and pushed her away with a look of fierce rejection. Then he caught at his own heart; a change, the change that shall come upon every living face, came upon his face. He fell back upon the seat, and his head sank forward.