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- A Knight Of The Nineteenth Century - 40/79 -
were aware of his existence despised and detested him, and would breathe more freely if assured of his death. He instinctively felt that the natural affections of his mother and sisters were borne down and almost overwhelmed by his course and character. If they had any visitors in the seclusion to which his disgrace had driven them, his name would be avoided with morbid sensitiveness, and yet all would be as painfully conscious of him as if he were a corpse in the room, which by some monstrous necessity could not be buried. While they might shed natural tears, he was not sure but that deep in their hearts would come a sense of relief should they hear that he was dead, and so could not deepen the stain he had already given to a name once so respectable. He knew that his indifference and overbearing manner toward his sisters had alienated them from him; while in respect to Mrs. Haldane, her aristocratic conventionality, the most decided trait of her character, would always be in sharp contest with her strong mother-love, and thus he would ever be only a source of disquiet and wretchedness whether present or absent. In view of the discordant elements and relations now existing, there was not a place on earth less attractive than his own home.
It may at first seem a contradiction to say that the thought of Mrs. Arnot gave him a drearier sense of isolation than the memory of all else. In her goodness she seemed to belong to a totally different world from himself and people in general. He had nothing in common with her. She seemed to come to him almost literally as an angel of mercy, and from an infinite distance, and her visits must, of necessity, be like those of the angels, few and far between, and, in view of his character, must soon cease. He shrank from her purity and nobility even while drawn toward her by her sympathy. He instinctively felt that in all her deep commiseration of him she could not for a moment tolerate the debasing evil of his nature, and that this evil, retained, would speedily and inevitably separate them forever. Could he be rid of it? He did not know. He could not then see how. In his weakness and despondency it seemed inwrought with every fibre of his being, and an essential part of himself. As for Laura, she was like a bright star that had set, and was no longer above his dim horizon.
As he felt himself thus losing his hold on the companionship and remembrance of others, he was thrown back upon himself, and this led him to feel with a sort of dreary foreboding that it would be a horrible thing thus to be chained forever to a self toward which the higher faculties of his soul must ever cherish only hatred and loathing. Even now he hated himself--nay, more, he was enraged with himself--in view of the folly of which he had been capable. What could be worse than the endless companionship of the base nature which had already dragged him down so low?
As the hours passed, the weight upon his heart grew heavier, and the chill of dread more unendurable. He saw his character as another might see it. He saw a nature to which, from infancy, a wrong bias had been given, made selfish by indulgence, imperious and strong only in carrying out impulses and in gratifying base passions, but weak as water in resisting evil and thwarting its vile inclinations. The pride and hope that had sustained him in what he regarded as the great effort of his life were gone, and he felt neither strength nor courage to attempt anything further. He saw himself helpless and prostrate before his fate, and yet that fate was so terrible that he shrank from it with increasing dread.
What could he do? Was it possible to do anything? Had he not lost his footing? If a man is caught in the rapids, up to a certain point his struggle against the tide is full of hope, but beyond that point no effort can avail. Had he not been swept so far down toward the final plunge that grim despair were better than frantic but vain effort?
And yet he felt that he could not give himself up to the absolute mastery of evil without one more struggle. Was there any chance? Was he capable of making the needful effort?
Thus hopes and fears, bitter memories and passionate regrets, swept to and fro through his soul like stormy gusts. A painful experience and Mrs. Arnot's words were teaching the giddy, thoughtless young fellow what life meant, and were forcing upon his attention the inevitable questions connected with it which must be solved sooner or later, and which usually grow more difficult as the consideration of them is delayed, and they become complicated. As his cell grew dusky with its early twilight, as he thought of another long night whose darkness would be light compared with the shadow brooding on his prospects, his courage and endurance gave way.
With something of the feeling of a terror-stricken child he called the under-sheriff, and asked for writing materials. With a pencil he wrote hastily:
"MRS. ARNOT--I entreat you to visit me once more to-day. Your words have left me in torture. I cannot face the consequences and yet see no way of escape. It would be very cruel to leave me to my despairing thoughts for another night, and you are not cruel."
In despatching the missive he said, "I can promise that if this note is delivered to Mrs. Arnot at once, the bearer shall be well paid."
Moments seemed hours while he waited for an answer. Suppose the letter was not delivered--suppose Mrs. Arnot was absent. A hundred miserable conjectures flitted through his mind; but his confidence in his friend was such that even his morbid fear did not suggest that she would not come.
The lady was at the dinner-table when the note was handed to her, and after reading it she rose hastily and excused herself.
"Where are you going?" asked her husband sharply.
"A person in trouble has sent for me."
"Well, unless the _person_ is in the midst of a surgical operation, he, she, or it, whichever this person may be, can wait till you finish your dinner."
"I am going to visit Egbert Haldane," said Mrs. Arnot quietly. "Jane, please tell Michael to come round with the carriage immediately."
"You visit the city prison at this hour! Now I protest. The young rake probably has the delirium tremens. Send our physician rather, if some one must go, though leaving him to the jailer and a strait-jacket would be better still."
"Please excuse me," answered his wife, with her hand on the door-knob; "you forget my relations to Mrs. Haldane; her son has sent for me."
"'Her relations to Mrs. Haldane!' As if she were not always at the beck and call of every beggar and criminal in town! I do wish I had a wife who was too much of a lady to have anything to do with this low scum."
A few moments later Mr. Arnot broke out anew with muttered complaint and invective, as he heard the carriage driven rapidly away.
As by the flickering light of a dip candle Mrs. Arnot saw Haldane's pale, haggard face, she did not regret that she had come at once, for a glance gave to her the evidence of a human soul in its extremity.
In facing these deep questions of life, some regard themselves as brave or philosophical. Perhaps it were nearer the truth to say they are stolid, and are staring at that which they do not understand and cannot yet realize. Where in history do we read--who from a ripe experience can give--an instance of a happy life developing under the deepening shadow of evil? Suppose one has seen high types of character and happiness, and was capable of appreciating them, but finds that he has cherished a sottish, beastly nature so long that it has become his master, promising to hold him in thraldom ever afterward;--can there be a more wretched form of captivity? The ogre of a debased nature drags the soul away from light and happiness--from all who are good and pure--to the hideous solitude of self and memory.
There are those who will be incredulous and even resentful in view of this picture, but it will not be the first time that facts have been quarrelled with. It is _true_ that many are writhing and groaning in this cruel bondage, mastered and held captive by some debasing appetite or passion, perhaps by many. Sometimes, with a bitter, despairing sorrow, of which superficial observers of life can have no idea, they speak of these horrid chains; sometimes they tug at them almost frantically. A few escape, but more are dragged down and away--away from honorable companionships and friendships; away from places of trust, from walks of usefulness and safety; away from parents, from wife and children, until the awful isolation is complete, and the guilty soul finds itself alone with the sin that mastered it, conscious that God only will ever see and remember. Human friends will forget--they must forget in order to obtain relief from an object that has become morally too unsightly to be looked upon; and in mercy they are so created that they can forget, though it may be long before it is possible.
There are people who scout this awful mystery of evil. They have beautiful little theories of their own, which they have spun in the seclusion of their studies. They keep carefully within their shady, flower-bordered walks, and ignore the existence of the world's dusty highways, in which so many are fainting and being trampled upon. What they do not see does not exist. What they do not believe is not true. They cannot condemn too severely the lack of artistic taste and liberal culture which leads any one to regard sin as other than a theologian's phrase or a piquant element in human life, which otherwise would be rather dull and flavorless.
Mrs. Arnot was not a theorist, nor was she the elegant lady, wholly given to the aesthetic culture that her husband desired; she was a large-hearted woman, and she understood human life and its emergencies sufficiently well to tremble with apprehension when she saw the face of Egbert Haldane, for she felt that a deathless soul in its crisis--its deepest spiritual need--was looking to her solely for help.
Mrs. Arnot again came directly to the youth and put her hand on his shoulder with motherly freedom and kindliness. Beyond even the word of sympathy is the touch of sympathy, and it often conveys to the fainting heart a subtle power to hope and trust again which the materialist cannot explain. The Divine Physician often touched those whom he healed. He laid his hand fearlessly on the leper from whom all shrank with inexpressible dread. The moral leper who trembled under Mrs. Arnot's hand felt that he was not utterly lost and beyond the pale of hope, if one so good and pure could still touch him; and there came a hope, like a ray struggling through thick darkness, that the hand that caressed might rescue him.
"Egbert," said the lady gravely, "tell me what I can do for you."
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