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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Life's Morning - Chapter 26. Mid-Day
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A Life's Morning - Chapter 26. Mid-Day Post by :Orian Category :Long Stories Author :George Gissing Date :May 2012 Read :2234

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A Life's Morning - Chapter 26. Mid-Day

CHAPTER XXVI. MID-DAY

Once more at The Firs. Wilfrid had decided to make this his abode. It was near enough to London to allow of his going backwards and forwards as often as might be necessary; his father's town house offered the means of change for Emily, and supplied him with a _pied-a-terre in time of session. By limiting his attendance at the House as far as decency would allow, he was able to enjoy with small interruption the quiet of his home in Surrey, and a growing certainty that the life of the present Parliament would be short encouraged him in looking forward to the day when politics would no longer exist for him.

He and Emily established themselves at The Firs towards the end of December, having spent a week with Mr. Athel on their return from the Continent. Emily's health had improved, but there was no likelihood that she would ever be other than a delicate flower, to be jealously guarded from the sky's ruder breath by him to whom she was a life within life. Ambition as he formerly understood it had no more meaning for Wilfrid; the fine ardour of his being rejected grosser nourishment and burned in altar-flame towards the passion-pale woman whom he after all called wife. Emily was an unfailing inspiration; by her side the nobler zeal of his youth renewed itself; in the light of her pure soul he saw the world as poetry and strove for that detachment of the intellect which in Emily was a gift of nature.

She, Emily--Emily Athel, as she joyed to write herself--moved in her new sphere like a spirit humbled by victory over fate. It was a mild winter; the Surrey hills were tender against the brief daylight, and gardens breathed the freshness of evergreens. When the sun trembled over the landscape for a short hour, Emily loved to stray as far as that hollow on the heath where she had sat with Wilfrid years ago, and heard him for the first time speak freely of his aims and his hopes. That spot was sacred; as she stood there beneath the faint blue of the winter sky, all the exquisite sadness of life, the memory of those whom death had led to his kindly haven, the sorrows of new-born love, the dear heartache for woe passed into eternity, touched the deepest fountains of her nature and made dim her eyes. She would not have had life other than it was given to her, for she had learned the secrets of infinite passion in the sunless valleys of despair.

She rested. In the last few months she had traversed a whole existence; repose was needful that she might assimilate all her new experiences and range in due order the gifts which joy had lavishly heaped upon her. The skies of the south, the murmur of blue seas on shores of glorious name, the shrines of Art, the hallowed scenes where earth's greatest have loved and wrought, these were no longer a dream with her bodily eyes she had looked upon Greece and Italy, and to have done so was a consecration, it cast a light upon her brows. 'Talk to me of Rome;' those were always her words when Wilfrid came to her side in the evening. 'Talk to me of Rome, as you alone can.' And as Wilfrid recalled their life in the world's holy of holies, she closed her eyes for the full rapture of the inner light, and her heart sang praise.

Wilfrid was awed by his blessedness. There were times when he scarcely dared to take in his own that fine-moulded hand which was the symbol of life made perfect; Emily uttered thoughts which made him fear to profane her purity by his touch. She realised to the uttermost his ideal of womanhood, none the less so that it seemed no child would be born of her to trouble the exclusiveness of their love. He clad her in queenly garments and did homage at her feet. Her beauty was all for him, for though Emily could grace any scene she found no pleasure in society, and the hours of absence from home were to Wilfrid full of anxiety to return. All their plans were for solitude; life was too short for more than the inevitable concessions to the outside world.

But one morning in February, Emily's eye fell upon an announcement in the newspaper which excited in her a wish to go up to town. Among the list of singers at a concert to be given that day she had caught the name of Miss Beatrice Redwing. It was Saturday; Wilfrid had no occasion for leaving home and already they had enjoyed in advance the two unbroken days.

'But I should indeed like to hear her,' Emily said, 'and she seems to sing so rarely.'

'She has only just returned to England,' Wilfrid remarked

They had heard of Beatrice having been in Florence a week or two prior to their own stay there. She was travelling with the Baxendales. Emily was anxious to meet her, and Wilfrid had held out a hope that this might come about in Italy, but circumstances had proved adverse.

'Have you seen her?' Emily inquired.

Her husband had not. He seemed at first a little disinclined to go up for the concert, but on Emily's becoming silent he hastened to give a cheerful acquiescence.

'Couldn't we see her to-morrow?' she went on to ask.

'No doubt we can. It's only the facing of my aunt's drawing-room on a Sunday afternoon.'

'O, surely that is needless, Wilfrid? Couldn't we go and see her quietly? She would be at home in the morning, I should think.'

'I should think so. We'll make inquiries to-night.'

They left home early in the afternoon and procured tickets on their way from the station to Mr. Athel's. Their arrival being quite unexpected, they found that Mr. Athel had loft town for a day or two. It was all that Emily needed for the completing of her pleasure; her father-in-law was scrupulously polite in his behaviour to her, but the politeness fell a little short as yet of entire ease, and conversation with him involved effort. She ran a risk of letting Wilfrid perceive the gladness with which she discovered an empty house; he did, in fact, attribute to its true cause the light-heartedness she showed as they sat together at dinner, and smiled to think that he himself shared in the feeling of relief. There were reasons why he could not look forward to the evening with unalloyed happiness, but the unwonted gaiety which shone on Emily's face, and gave a new melody to her voice, moved him to tenderness and gratitude. He felt that it would be well to listen again to the music of that strong heart whose pain had been his bliss. He overcame his ignoble anxieties and went to the concert as to a sacred office.

Their seats, owing to lateness in applying for them, were not in the best part of the hall; immediately behind them was the first row of a cheaper section, and two men of indifferent behaviour were seated there within ear-shot; they were discussing the various names upon the programme as if for the enlightenment of their neighbours. When Emily had been sitting for a few minutes, she found that it had been unwise to leave her mantle in the cloak-room; there was a bad draught. Wilfrid went to recover it. Whilst waiting, Emily became aware that the men behind her were talking of Miss Redwing; she listened.

'She's married, I think, eh?' said one.

'Was to have been, you mean. Why, wasn't it you told me the story? O no, it was Drummond. Drummond knows her people, I think.'

'What story, eh?'

'Why, she was to have married a Member of Parliament; what the deuce was his name? Something that reminded me of a race-horse, I remember. Was it Blair? No--Athel! That's the name.'

'Why didn't it come off, then?'

'Oh, the honourable member found somebody he liked better.'

It was not the end of the conversation, but just then the conductor rose in his place and there was 'hushing.' Wilfrid returned at the same moment. He noticed that Emily shivered as he put the covering on her shoulders. When he was seated she looked at him so strangely that he asked her in a whisper what was the matter. Emily shook her head and seemed to fix her attention on the music.

Beatrice Redwing was the third singer to come forward. Whilst she sang Emily frequently looked at her husband. Wilfrid did not notice it, he was absorbed in listening. Towards the end Emily, too, lost thought of everything save the magic with which the air was charged. There was vociferous demand for an encore and Beatrice gave another song.

When the mid-way interval was reached Emily asked her husband if he would leave the hall. She gave no reason and Wilfrid did not question her. When they were in the carriage she said the draught had been too severe. Wilfrid kept silence; he was troubled by inexplicable misgivings.

Servants hastened to light the drawing-room on their arrival earlier than was expected. Emily threw off her wraps and seated herself near the fire.

'Do you suffer from the chill?' Wilfrid asked, approaching her as if with diffidence.

She turned her face to him, gazing with the sadness which was so much more natural to her than the joy of two hours ago.

'It was not the draught that made me come away,' she said with gentle directness. 'I must tell you what it was, Wilfrid. I cannot keep any of my thoughts from you.'

'Tell me,' he murmured, standing by her.

She related the substance of the conversation she had overheard, always keeping her eyes on him.

'Is it true?'

'It is true, Emily.'

Between him and her there could be no paltry embarrassments. A direct question touching both so deeply could be answered only in one way. If Emily had suffered from a brief distrust, his look and voice, sorrowful but frank as though he faced Omniscience, restored her courage at once. There might be grief henceforth, but it was shared between them.

He spoke on and made all plain. Then at the last:

'I felt it to be almost impossible that you should net some day know. I could not tell you, perhaps on her account as much as on my own. But now I may say what I had no words for before. She loved me, and I believed that I could return her love. When I met you, how could I marry her? A stranger sees my conduct--you have heard how. It is you who alone can judge me.'

'And she came to me in that way,' Emily murmured. 'She could not only lose _you_, but give her hand to the woman who robbed her!'

'And take my part with everyone, force herself to show a bright face, do her best to have it understood that it was she herself who broke off the marriage--all this.'

'Dare I go to her, Wilfrid? Would it be cruel to go to her? I wish to speak--oh, not one word that would betray my knowledge, but to say that I love her. Do you think I may go?'

'I cannot advise you, Emily. Wait until the morning and do then what you think best.'

She decided to go. Beatrice still lived with Mrs. Birks, and it was probable that she would be alone on Sunday morning. It proved to be so.

Wilfrid waited more than an hour for Emily's return. When at length she entered to him, he saw that there was deep content on her countenance. Emily embraced her husband and laid her head upon his breast. He could hear her sigh gently.

'She wishes to see you, Wilfrid.'

'She received you kindly?'

'I will tell you all when I have had time to think of it. But she was sorry you did not come with me. Will you go? She will be alone this afternoon.'

They held each other in silence. Then Emily, raising an awed face, asked softly:

'Where does she find her strength? Is her nature so spotless that self-sacrifice is her highest joy? Wilfrid, I could have asked pardon at her feet; my heart bled for her.'

'Dearest, you least of all should wonder at the strength which comes of high motive.'

'Oh, but to surrender you to another and to witness that other's happiness! Was not my self-denial perhaps a form of selfishness? I only shrank from love because I dreaded the reproaches of my own heart; I did good to no one, was only anxious to save myself. She--I dare not think of it! My nature is so weak. Take your love from me and you take my life.'

Wilfrid's heart leaped with the wild joy of a mountain torrent.

'She will not always be alone,' he said, perhaps with the readiness of the supremely happy to prophesy smooth things for all. There came the answer of gentle reproach:

'After loving you, Wilfrid?'

'Beautiful, that is how it seems to you. There is second love, often truer than the first.'

'Then the first was not love indeed! If I had never seen you again, what meaning would love have ever had for me apart from your name? I only dreamed of it till I knew you, then it was love first and last. Wilfrid, my own, my husband--my love till I die!' ....


(THE END)
George Gissing's Novel: Life's Morning

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