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- Mrs. Falchion, Volume 1. - 10/25 -
require of him is another. The world says, You shall have latitude enough to swing in freely, but you must keep within the code. As soon as you break the law openly, and set the machinery of public penalty in motion, there is an end of you, so far as this world is concerned. You may live on, but you have been broken on the wheel, and broken you always will be. It is not a question of right or wrong, of kindness or cruelty, but of general expediency and inevitableness. To all effect, Mr. Anson was dead before he breathed his last. He died when he passed within the walls of a gaol--condemned for theft."
There was singular scorn in her last few words, and, dissent as I did from her merciless theories, I was astonished at her adroitness and downrightness--enchanted by the glow of her face. To this hour, knowing all her life as I do, I can only regard her as a splendid achievement of nature, convincing even when at the most awkward tangents with the general sense and the straitest interpretation of life; convincing even in those other and later incidents, which showed her to be acting not so much by impulse as by the law of her nature. Her emotions were apparently rationalised at birth--to be derationalised and broken up by a power greater than herself before her life had worked itself out. I had counted her clever; I had not reckoned with her powers of reasoning. Influenced as I was by emotion when in her presence, I resorted to a personal application of my opinions--the last and most unfair resort of a disputant. I said I would rather be Anson dead than Mrs. Anson living; I would rather be the active than the passive sinner; the victim, than a part of that great and cruel machine of penalty.
"The passive sinner!" she replied. "Why, what wrong did she do?"
The highest moral conceptions worked dully in her. Yet she seemed then, as she always appeared to be, free from any action that should set the machine of penalty going against herself. She was inexorable, but she had never, knowingly, so much as slashed the hem of the moral code.
"It was to give his wife pleasure that Anson made the false step," I urged.
"Do you think she would have had the pleasure at the price? The man was vain and selfish to run any risk, to do anything that might endanger her safety--that is, her happiness and comfort."
"But suppose he knew that she loved ease and pleasure?--that he feared her anger or disdain if he did not minister to her luxuries?"
"Then he ought not to have married that kind of a woman." The hardness in her voice was matched at that moment by the coldness of her face.
"That is begging the question," I replied. "What would such a selfish woman do in such a case, if her pleasure could not be gratified?"
"You must ask that kind of woman," was her ironical answer.
I rashly felt that her castle of strength was crumbling. I ventured farther.
"I have done so."
She turned slightly toward me, yet not nervously, as I had expected.
"What did she say?"
"She declined to answer directly."
There was a pause, in which I felt her eyes searching my face. I fear I must have learned dissimulation well; for, after a minute, I looked at her, and saw, from the absence of any curious anxiety, that I had betrayed nothing. She looked me straight in the eyes and said: "Dr. Marmion, a man must not expect to be forgiven, who has brought shame on a woman."
"Not even when he has repented and atoned?"
"Atoned! How mad you are! How can there be atonement? You cannot wipe things out--on earth. We are of the earth. Records remain. If a man plays the fool, the coward, and the criminal, he must expect to wear the fool's cap, the white feather, and the leg-chain until his life's end. And now, please, let us change the subject. We have been bookish long enough." She rose with a gesture of impatience.
I did not rise. "Pardon me, Mrs. Falchion," I urged, "but this interests me so. I have thought much of Anson lately. Please, let us talk a little longer. Do sit down."
She sat down again with an air of concession rather than of pleasure.
"I am interested," I said, "in looking at this question from a woman's standpoint. You see, I am apt to side with the miserable fellow who made a false step--foolish, if you like--all for love of a selfish and beautiful woman."
"She was beautiful?"
"Yes, as you are." She did not blush at that rank compliment, any more than a lioness would, if you praised the astonishing sleekness and beauty of its skin.
"And she had been a true wife to him before that?"
"Yes, in all that concerned the code."
"Well?--Well, was not that enough? She did what she could, as long as she could." She leaned far back in the chair, her eyes half shut.
"Don't you think--as a woman, not as a theorist--that Mrs. Anson might at least have come to him when he was dying?"
"It would only have been uncomfortable for her. She had no part in his life; she could not feel with him. She could do nothing."
"But suppose she had loved him? By that memory, then, of the time when they took each other for better or for worse, until death should part them?"
"Death did part them when the code banished him; when he passed from a free world into a cage. Besides, we are talking about people marrying, not about their loving."
"I will admit," I said, with a little raw irony, "that I was not exact in definition."
Here I got a glimpse into her nature which rendered after events not so marvellous to me as they might seem to others. She thought a moment quite indolently, and then continued: "You make one moralise like George Eliot. Marriage is a condition, but love must be an action. The one is a contract, the other is complete possession, a principle--that is, if it exists at all. I do not know."
She turned the rings round mechanically on her finger; and among them was a wedding-ring! Her voice had become low and abstracted, and now she seemed to have forgotten my presence, and was looking out upon the humming darkness round us, through which now and again there rang a boatswain's whistle, or the loud laugh of Blackburn, telling of a joyous hour in the smoking-room.
I am now about to record an act of madness, of folly, on my part. I suppose most men have such moments of temptation, but I suppose, also, that they act more sensibly and honourably than I did then. Her hand had dropped gently on the chair-arm, near to my own, and though our fingers did not touch, I felt mine thrilled and impelled toward hers. I do not seek to palliate my action. Though the man I believed to be her husband was below, I yielded myself to an imagined passion for her. In that moment I was a captive. I caught her hand and kissed it hotly.
"But you might know what love is," I said. "You might learn--learn of me. You--"
Abruptly and with surprise she withdrew her hand, and, without any visible emotion save a quicker pulsation of her breast, which might have been indignation, spoke. "But even if I might learn, Dr. Marmion, be sure that neither your college nor Heaven gave you the knowledge to instruct me. . . . There: pardon me, if I speak harshly; but this is most inconsiderate of you, most impulsive--and compromising. You are capable of singular contrasts. Please let us be friends, friends simply. You are too interesting for a lover, really you are."
Her words were a cold shock to my emotion--my superficial emotion; though, indeed, for that moment she seemed adorable to me. Without any apparent relevancy, but certainly because my thoughts in self-reproach were hovering about cabin 116 Intermediate, I said, with a biting shame, "I do not wonder now!"
"You do not wonder at what?" she questioned; and she laid her hand kindly on my arm.
I put the hand away a little childishly, and replied, "At men going to the devil." But this was not what I thought.
"That does not sound complimentary to somebody. May I ask you what you mean?" she said calmly. "I mean that Anson loved his wife, and she did not love him; yet she held him like a slave, torturing him at the same time."
"Does it not strike you that this is irrelevant? You are not my husband --not my slave. But, to be less personal, Mr. Anson's wife was not responsible for his loving her. Love, as I take it, is a voluntary thing. It pleased him to love her--he would not have done it if it did not please him; probably his love was an inconvenient thing domestically --if he had no tact."
"Of that," I said, "neither you nor I can know with any certainty. But, to be scriptural, she reaped where she had not sowed, and gathered where she had not strawed. If she did not make the man love her,--I believe she did, as I believe you would, perhaps unconsciously, do,--she used his love, and was therefore better able to make all other men admire her. She was richer in personal power for that experience; but she was not grateful for it nor for his devotion."
"You mean, in fact, that I--for you make the personal application--shall be better able henceforth to win men's love, because--ah, surely, Dr. Marmion, you do not dignify this impulse, this foolishness of yours, by the name of love!" She smiled a little satirically at the fingers I had kissed.
I was humiliated, and annoyed with her and with myself, though, down in my mind, I knew that she was right. "I mean," said I, "that I can understand how men have committed suicide because of just such things. My wonder is that Anson, poor devil! did not do it." I knew I was talking foolishly.
"He hadn't the courage, my dear sir. He was gentlemanly enough to die,
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