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- A Life's Morning - 70/80 -
at length to one of the streets of small lodging-houses which abound in this neighbourhood, and to a door which she opened with her latch-key. She went upstairs. Here two rooms were her home. That which looked upon the street was furnished in the poor bare style which the exterior of the dwelling would have led one to expect. A very hideous screen of coloured paper hid the fireplace, and in front of the small oblong mirror--cracked across one corner--which stood above the mantelpiece were divers ornaments such as one meets with in poor lodging-houses; certain pictures about the walls completed the effect of vulgarity.
Emily let herself sink upon the chintz-covered couch, and lay back, closing her eyes; she had thrown off her hat, but was too weary, too absent in thought, to remove her mantle. Her face was as colourless as if she had fainted; she kept one hand pressed against her heart. Unconsciously she had walked home with a very quick step, and quick movement caused her physical suffering. She sat thus for a quarter of an hour, when there came a tap at the door.
Her landlady entered.
'Oh, I thought, Miss Hood,' she began, 'you'd maybe rung the bell as usual, and I hadn't heard it. I do sometimes think I'm getting a little hard of hearing; my husband tell me of it. Will you have the tea made?'
'Thank you, Mrs. Willis,' Emily replied, rising.
She opened a low cupboard beside the fireplace, took out a tea-pot, and put some tea into it.
'You'd have a long walk, I suppose,' continued the woman, 'and delightful weather for it, too. But you must mind as you don't over-tire yourself. You don't look very strong, if I may say it.'
'Oh, I am very well,' was the mechanical reply.
After a few more remarks the landlady took away the teapot. Emily then drew out a cloth from the cupboard, and other things needful for her evening meal. Presently the tea-pot returned filled with hot water. Emily was glad to pour out a cup and drink it, but she ate nothing. In a short time she rang the bell to have the things removed. This time a little girl appeared.
'Eh, Miss,' was the exclamation of the child, on examining the state of the table, 'you haven't eaten nothing!'
'No, I don't want anything just now, Milly,' was the quiet reply.
'Shall I leave the bread and butter out?'
'No, thank you. I'll have some later.'
'Is there anything I could get you, Miss?'
'Nothing, Milly. Take the things away, there's a good girl.'
Emily had seated herself on the couch again; when the girl was gone she lay down, her hands beneath her head. Long, long since she had had so much to think of as to-night.
At first she had found Wilfrid a good deal altered. He looked so much older; his bearded face naturally caused that. But before he had spoken twenty words how well she knew that the change was only of appearance. His voice was a little deeper, but the tone and manner of his speaking carried her back to the days when they had first exchanged words when she was a governess at The Firs in Surrey, and Wilfrid was the interesting young fellow who had overworked himself at college. The circumstances of to-day's meeting had reproduced something of the timidity with which he had approached her when they were strangers. This afternoon she had scarcely looked into his eyes, but she felt their gaze upon her, and felt their power as of old--ah, fifty-fold stronger!
Was he married? It was more than possible. Nothing had escaped him inconsistent with that, and he was not likely to speak of it directly. It would account for the nature of his embarrassment in talking with her; her keen insight distinguished something more than the hesitation which common memories would naturally cause. And that pressure of the hand at parting which had made her heart leap with such agony, might well be his way of intimating to her that this meeting would have no sequel. Was it to be expected that he should remain unmarried? Had she hoped it?
It could not be called hope, but for two or three years something had grown in her which made life a succession of alternating longings and despairs. For Emily was not so constituted that the phase of thought and feeling which had been brought about by the tragedy of her home could perpetuate itself and become her normal consciousness. When she fled from Dunfield she believed that the impulses then so strong would prevail with her to the end of her life, that the motives which were then predominant in her soul would maintain their ruling force for ever. And many months went by before she suspected that her imagination had deceived her; imagination, ever the most potent factor of her being, the source alike of her strength and her weakness. But there came a day when the poignancy of her grief was subdued, and she looked around her upon a world more desolate than that in which she found herself on the day of her mother's burial. She began to know once more that she was young, and that existence stretched before her a limitless tract of barren endurance.
The rare natures which are in truth ruled by the instinct of renunciation, which find in the mortification of sense a spring of unearthly joy brimming higher with each self-conquest, may experience temptation and relapse, but the former is a new occasion for the arming of the spirit, and the latter speedily leads to a remorse which is the strongest of all incentives to ascetic struggle. Emily had not upon her the seal of sainthood. It was certain that at some point of her life asceticism would make irresistible claim upon the strongholds of her imagination; none the less certain that it would be but for a time, that it would prove but a stage in her development. To her misfortune the occasion presented itself in connection with her strongest native affections, and under circumstances which led her to an irretrievable act. Had she been brought up in a Roman Catholic country she would doubtless have thrown herself into a convent, finding her stern joy in the thought that no future wavering was possible. Attempting to make a convent of her own mind, she soon knew too well that her efforts mocked her, that there was in her an instinct stronger than that of renunciation, and that she had condemned herself to a life of futile misery.
Her state of mind for the year following her father's death was morbid, little differing from madness; and she came at length to understand that. When time had tempered her anguish, she saw with clear eyes that her acts had been guided by hallucination. Never would sorrow for her parents cease to abide with her, but sorrow cannot be the sustenance of a life through those years when the mind is strongest and the sensations most vivid. Had she by her self-mortification done aught to pleasure those dear ones who slept their last sleep? It had been the predominant feature of her morbid passion to believe that piety demanded such a sacrifice. Grief may reach such a point that to share the uttermost fate of the beloved one seems blessedness; in Emily's mind that moment of supreme agony had been protracted till unreasoning desire took to itself the guise of duty. Duty so represented cannot maintain its sanction when the wounds of nature grow towards healing.
She strove with herself. The reaction she was experiencing seemed to her a shameful weakness. Must she cease to know the self-respect which comes of conscious perseverance in a noble effort? Must she stand self-condemned, an ignoble nature, incapable of anything good and great--and that, after all her ambitions? Was she a mere waif, at the mercy of the currents of sense? Never before had she felt this condemnation of her own spirit. She had suffered beyond utterance, but ever with a support which kept her from the last despair; of her anguish had come inspiration. Now she felt herself abandoned of all spiritual good. She came to loathe her life as a polluted stream. The image of Wilfrid, the memory of her lost love, these grew to be symbols of her baseness. It was too much to face those with whom daily duty brought her in contact; surely they must read in her face the degradation of which she was conscious. As much as possible she kept apart from all, nursing her bitter self-reproach.
Then it was that she sought relief in the schemes which naturally occur to a woman thus miserable. She would relinquish her life as a teacher, and bury her wretchedness beneath physical hardship. There was anguish enough in the world, and she would go to live in the midst of it, would undertake the hardest and most revolting tasks in some infirmary: thus might she crush out of herself the weakness which was her disgrace. It remained only a vision. That which was terribly real, the waste and woe of her heart, grew ever.
She yielded. Was not the true sin this that she tried to accomplish--the slaying of the love which cried so from her inmost being? Glimpses of the old faith began to be once more vouchsafed her; at moments she knew the joy of beautiful things. This was in spring-time. Living in the great seaport, she could easily come within sight of the blue line where heaven and ocean met, and that symbol of infinity stirred once more the yearnings for boundless joy which in bygone days she had taught herself to accept as her creed. Supposing that her father had still knowledge of the life she led, would it make him happy to know that she had deprived herself of every pleasure, had for his sake ruined a future which might have been so fair? Not thus do we show piety to the dead; rather in binding our brows with every flower our hands may cull, and in drinking sunlight as long as the west keeps for us one gleam.
She had destroyed herself. Joy could arise to her from but one source, and that was stopped for ever. For it never came to Emily as the faintest whisper that other love than Wilfrid's might bless her life. That was constancy which nothing could shake; in this she would never fall from the ideal she had set before herself. She no longer tried to banish thoughts of what she had lost; Wilfrid was a companion at all hours far more real than the people with whom she had to associate. She had, alas, destroyed his letters she had destroyed the book in which she wrote the secrets of her heart that he might some day read them. The lack of a single thing that had come to her from him made the more terribly real the severance of his life from hers. She anguished without hope.
Then there came to her the knowledge that her bodily strength was threatened by disease. She had fainting fits, and in the comfort administered by those about her she read plainly what was meant to be concealed. At times this was a relief; at least she might hope to be spared long years of weary desolation, and death, come when he might, would be a friend. In other hours the all but certainty of her doom was a thought so terrible that reason well-nigh failed before it. Was there no hope for her for ever, nothing but the grave to rest her tired heart? Why had fate dealt with her so cruelly? She looked round and saw none upon whom had fallen a curse so unrelieved.
At last the desire to go once more to the south of England grew overpowering. If she could live in London, she felt it might console her to feel that she was near Wilfrid; he would not seem, as now, in a world utterly remote. Perchance she might one day even see him. If she had
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