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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAn Ambitious Man - Chapter 15
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An Ambitious Man - Chapter 15 Post by :BizSuccess Category :Long Stories Author :Ella Wheeler Wilcox Date :May 2012 Read :2381

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An Ambitious Man - Chapter 15

CHAPTER XV

The congregation of St Blank's Church was rendered sad and solicitous by learning that its rector was on the eve of nervous prostration, and that his physician had ordered a change of air. He went away in company with his mother for a vacation of three months. The day after his departure Joy Irving received a letter from him which read as follows:-


"My Dear Miss Irving,--You may not in your deep grief have given me a thought. If such a thought has been granted one so unworthy, it must have taken the form of surprise that your rector and friend has made no call of condolence since death entered your household. I want to write one little word to you, asking you to be lenient in your judgment of me. I am ill in body and mind. I feel that I am on the eve of some distressing malady. I am not able to reason clearly, or to judge what is right and what is wrong. I am as one tossed between the laws of God and the laws made by men, and bruised in heart and in soul. I dare not see you or speak to you while I am in this state of mind. I fear for what I may say or do. I have not slept since I last saw you. I must go away and gain strength and equilibrium. When I return I shall hope to be master of myself. Until then, adieu.

"ARTHUR EMERSON STUART."


These wild and incoherent phrases stirred the young girl's heart with intense pain and anxiety. She had known for almost a year that she loved the young rector; she had believed that he cared for her, and without allowing herself to form any definite thoughts of the future, she had lived in a blissful consciousness of loving and being loved, which is to the fulfilment of a love dream, like inhaling the perfume of a rose, compared to the gathered flower and its attending thorns.

The young clergyman's absence at the time of her greatest need had caused her both wonder and pain. His letter but increased both sentiments without explaining the cause.

It increased, too, her love for him, for whenever over-anxiety is aroused for one dear to us, our love is augmented.

She felt that the young man was in some great trouble, unknown to her, and she longed to be able to comfort him. Into the maiden's tender and ardent affection stole the wifely wish to console and the motherly impulse to protect her dear one from pain, which are strong elements in every real woman's love.

Mrs Irving had died without writing one word to the Baroness; and that personage was in a state of constant excitement until she heard of the rector's plans for rest and travel. Mrs Stuart informed her of the conversation which had taken place between herself and her son; and of his evident distress of mind, which had reacted on his body and made it necessary for him to give up mental work for a season.

"I feel that I owe you a debt of gratitude, dear Baroness," Mrs Stuart had said. "Sad as this condition of things is, imagine how much worse it would be, had my son, through an excess of sympathy for that girl at this time, compromised himself with her before we learned the terrible truth regarding her birth. I feel sure my son will regain his health after a few months' absence, and that he will not jeopardise my happiness and his future by any further thoughts of this unfortunate girl, who in the meantime may not be here when we return."

The Baroness made a mental resolve that the girl should not be there.

While the rector's illness and proposed absence was sufficient evidence that he had resolved upon sacrificing his love for Joy on the altar of duty to his mother and his calling, yet the Baroness felt that danger lurked in the air while Miss Irving occupied her present position. No sooner had Mrs Stuart and her son left the city, than the Baroness sent an anonymous letter to the young organist. It read:


"I do not know whether your mother imparted the secret of her past life to you before she died, but as that secret is known to several people, it seems cruelly unjust that you are kept in ignorance of it. You are not Mr Irving's child. You were born before your mother married. While it is not your fault, only your misfortune, it would be wise for you to go where the facts are not so well known as in the congregation of St Blank's. There are people in that congregation who consider you guilty of a wilful deception in wearing the name you do, and of an affront to good taste in accepting the position you occupy. Many people talk of leaving the church on your account. Your gifts as a musician would win you a position elsewhere, and as I learn that your mother's life was insured for a considerable sum, I am sure you are able to seek new fields where you can bide your disgrace.

"A WELL-WISHER."


Quivering with pain and terror, the young girl cast the letter into the fire, thinking that it was the work of one of those half-crazed beings whose mania takes the form of anonymous letters to unoffending people. Only recently such a person had been brought into the courts for this offence. It occurred to her also that it might be the work of someone who wished to obtain her position as organist of St Blank's. Musicians, she knew, were said to be the most jealous of all people, and while she had never suffered from them before, it might be that her time had now come to experience the misfortunes of her profession.

Tender-hearted and kindly in feeling to all humanity, she felt a sickening sense of sorrow and fear at the thought that there existed such a secret enemy for her anywhere in the world.

She went out upon the street, and for the first time in her life she experienced a sense of suspicion and distrust toward the people she met; for the first time in her life, she realised that the world was not all kind and ready to give her back the honest friendship and the sweet good-will which filled her heart for all her kind. Strive as she would, she could not cast off the depression caused by this vile letter. It was her first experience of this cowardly and despicable phase of human malice, and she felt wounded in soul as by a poisoned arrow shot in the dark. And then, suddenly, there came to her the memory of her mother's words--"If unhappiness ever comes to you, read this letter."

Surely this was the time she needed to read that letter. That it contained some secret of her mother's life she felt sure, and she was equally sure that it contained nothing that would cause her to blush for that beloved mother.

"Whatever the manuscript may have to reveal to me," she said, "it is time that I should know." She took the package from the hiding place, and broke the seal. Slowly she read it to the end, as if anxious to make no error in understanding every phase of the long story it related. Beginning with the marriage of her mother to the French professor, Berene gave a detailed account of her own sad and troubled life, and the shadow which the father's appetite for drugs cast over her whole youth. "They say," she wrote, "that there is no personal devil in existence. I think this is true; he has taken the form of drugs and spirituous liquors, and so his work of devastation goes on." Then followed the story of the sacrilegious marriage to save her father from suicide, of her early widowhood; and the proffer of the Baroness to give her a home. Of her life of servitude there, her yearning for an education, and her meeting with "Apollo," as she designated Preston Cheney. "For truly he was like the glory of the rising day to me, the first to give me hope, courage and unselfish aid. I loved him, I worshipped him. He loved me, but he strove to crush and kill this love because he had worked out an ambitious career for himself. To extricate himself from many difficulties and embarrassments, and to further his ambitious dreams, he betrothed himself to the daughter of a rich and powerful man. He made no profession of love, and she asked none. She was incapable of giving or inspiring that holy passion. She only asked to be married.

"I only asked to be loved. Knowing nothing of the terrible conflict in his breast, knowing nothing of his new-made ties, I was wounded to the soul by his speaking unkindly to me--words he forced himself to speak to hide his real feelings. And then it was that a strange fate caused him to find me fainting, suffering, and praying for death. The love in both hearts could no longer be restrained. Augmented by its long control, sharpened by the agony we had both suffered, overwhelmed by the surprise of the meeting, we lost reason and prudence. Everything was forgotten save our love. When it was too late I foresaw the anguish and sorrow I must bring into this man's life. I fear it was this thought rather than repentance for sin which troubled me. Well may you ask why I did not think of all this before instead of after the error was committed. Why did not Eve realise the consequences of the fall until she had eaten of the apple? Only afterward did I learn of the unholy ties which my lover had formed that very day--ties which he swore to me should be broken ere another day passed, to render him free to make me his wife in the eyes of men, as I already was in the sight of God.

"Yet a strange and sudden resolve came to me as I listened to him. Far beyond the thought of my own ruin, rose the consciousness of the ruin I should bring upon his life by allowing him to carry out his design. To be his wife, his helpmate, chosen from the whole world as one he deemed most worthy and most able to cheer and aid him in life's battle--that seemed heaven to me; but to know that by one rash, impetuous act of folly, I had placed him in a position where he felt that honour compelled him to marry me--why, this thought was more bitter than death. I knew that he loved me; yet I knew, too, that by a union with me under the circumstances he would antagonise those who were now his best and most influential friends, and that his entire career would be ruined. I resolved to go away; to disappear from his life and leave no trace. If his love was as sincere as mine, he would find me; and time would show him some wiser way for breaking his new-made fetters than the rash and sudden method he now contemplated. He had forgotten to protect me with his love, but I could not forget to protect him. In every true woman's love there is the maternal element which renders sacrifice natural.

"Fate hastened and furthered my plans for departure. Made aware that the Baroness was suspicious of my fault, and learning that my lover was suddenly called to the bedside of his fiancee, I made my escape from the town and left no trace behind. I went to that vast haystack of lost needles--New York, and effaced Berene Dumont in Mrs Lamont. The money left from my father's belongings I resolved to use in cultivating my voice. I advertised for embroidery and fine sewing also, and as I was an expert with the needle, I was able to support myself and lay aside a little sum each week. I trimmed hats at a small price, and added to my income in various manners, owing to my French taste and my deft fingers.

"I was desolate, sad, lonely, but not despairing. What woman can despair when she knows herself loved? To me that consciousness was a far greater source of happiness than would have been the knowledge that I was an empress, or the wife of a millionaire, envied by the whole world. I believed my lover would find me in time, that we should be reunited. I believed this until I saw the announcement of his marriage in the press, and read that he and his bride had sailed for an extended foreign tour; but with this stunning news, there came to me the strange, sweet, startling consciousness that you, my darling child, were coming to console me.

"I know that under the circumstances I ought to have been borne down to the earth with a guilty shame; I ought to have considered you as a punishment for my sin--and walked in the valley of humiliation and despair.

"But I did not. I lived in a state of mental exaltation; every thought was a prayer, every emotion was linked with religious fervour. I was no longer alone or friendless, for I had you. I sang as I had never sung, and one theatrical manager, who happened to call upon my teacher during my lesson hour, offered me a position at a good salary at once if I would accept.

"I could not accept, of course, knowing what the coming months were to bring to me, but I took his card and promised to write him when I was ready to take a position. You came into life in the depressing atmosphere of a city hospital, my dear child, yet even there I was not depressed, and your face wore a smile of joy the first time I gazed upon it. So I named you Joy--and well have you worn the name. My first sorrow was in being obliged to leave you; for I had to leave you with those human angels, the sweet sisters of charity, while I went forth to make a home for you. My voice, as is sometimes the case, was richer, stronger and of greater compass after I had passed through maternity. I accepted a position with a travelling theatrical company, where I was to sing a solo in one act. My success was not phenomenal, but it WAS success nevertheless. I followed this life for three years, seeing you only at intervals. Then the consciousness came to me that without long and profound study I could never achieve more than a third-rate success in my profession.

"I had dreamed of becoming a great singer; but I learned that a voice alone does not make a great singer. I needed years of study, and this would necessitate the expenditure of large sums of money. I had grown heart-sick and disgusted with the annoyances and vulgarity I was subjected to in my position. When you were four years old a good man offered me a good home as his wife. It was the first honest love I had encountered, while scores of men had made a pretence of loving me during these years.

"I was hungering for a home where I could claim you and have the joy of your daily companionship instead of brief glimpses of you at the intervals of months. My voice, never properly trained, was beginning to break. I resolved to put Mr Irving to a test; I would tell him the true story of your birth, and if he still wished me to be his wife, I would marry him.

"I carried out my resolve, and we were married the day after he had heard my story. I lived a peaceful and even happy life with Mr Irving. He was devoted to you, and never by look, word or act, seemed to remember my past. I, too, at times almost forgot it, so strange a thing is the human heart under the influence of time. Imagine, then, the shock of remembrance and the tidal wave of memories which swept over me when in the lady you brought to call upon me I recognised--the Baroness.

"It is because she threatened to tell you that you were not born in wedlock that I leave this manuscript for you. It is but a few weeks since you told me the story of Marah Adams, and assured me that you thought her mother did right in confessing the truth to her daughter. Little did you dream with what painful interest I listened to your views on that subject. Little did I dream that I should so soon be called upon to act upon them.

"But the time is now come, and I want no strange hand to deal you a blow in the dark; if any part of the story comes to you, I want you to know the whole truth. You will wonder why I have not told you the name of your father. It is strange, but from the hour I knew of his marriage, and of your dawning life, I have felt a jealous fear lest he should ever take you from me; even after I am gone, I would not have him know of your existence and be unable to claim you openly. Any acquaintance between you could only result in sorrow.

"I have never blamed him for my past weakness, however I have blamed him for his unholy marriage. Our fault was mutual. I was no ignorant child; while young in years, I had sufficient knowledge of human nature to protect myself had I used my will-power and my reason. Like many another woman, I used neither; unlike the majority, I did not repent my sin or its consequences. I have ever believed you to be a more divinely born being than any children who may have resulted from my lover's unholy marriage. I die strong in the belief. God bless you, my dear child, and farewell."

Joy sat silent and pale like one in a trance for a long time after she had finished reading. Then she said aloud, "So I am another like Marah Adams; it was this knowledge which caused the rector to write me that strange letter. It was this knowledge which sent him away without coming to say one word of adieu. The woman who sent me the message, sent it to him also. Well, I can be as brave as my mother was. I, too, can disappear."

She arose and began silently and rapidly to make preparations for a journey. She felt a nervous haste to get away from something--from all things. Everything stable in the world seemed to have slipped from her hold in the last few days. Home, mother, love, and now hope and pride were gone too. She worked for more than two hours without giving vent to even a sigh. Then suddenly she buried her face in her hands and sobbed aloud: "Oh, mother, mother, you were not ashamed, but I am ashamed for you! Why was I ever born? God forgive me for the sinful thought, but I wish you had lied to me in place of telling me the truth."

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