We were sisters only by adoption; yet I know that the love between us, in those old days, was as great as it could have been if the mothers, of whom only sweet memories were left us, had been one; and as if my father had been Elsie's father too, instead of having pitifully adopted the orphan child, and brought her from a poor and loveless life to share our happy home. I suppose I always knew that he could never grow to love her just as he loved his own child; yet even if I had felt he did so, I should only have rejoiced. I am speaking now of the old times, and speaking, too, when I can see those old times lying in the full sunlight of the unsuspicious love we bore each other. We two adopted sisters were a strong contrast. Elsie was a bright light-hearted girl, with a sunny prettiness, and a happy smile for ever rippling on her lips and sparkling in her eyes. We were the same age within a year, yet I always felt much the elder, for my nature was silent and concentrated, dreamy to a fault, and steadfast—so steadfast, that if I had had one aim to pursue, however hopeless, I should have pursued it silently to my death. Yet under my quietness, I knew, even then, that there slept a passionate intensity of feeling which gave me one power greater than Elsie possessed, the power of suffering. She won love and friendship; while I stood isolated, with only her love and my father's to encircle me. She won admiration and esteem from all, and I knew that this was well, because suffering to her was weakening as illness; under it she lay passive and helpless, while I met it as I would meet a sorrowful friend, and made my step firm, and my heart strong, to support it. But all this was in the old times, before she won (easily, as she won all else) the only love which could have gladdened me; and before that chill gray cloud dropped down between us.
He did not live with us at first, but my father, when his own health failed, persuaded his young partner (to whom the mills would entirely belong after his death) to come and live with us in our great house, upon the hill, at the foot of which the mills lay. So Horace Capon came, and the whole active management of the mills fell into his hands; and although he was a young man, my father felt the utmost confidence in him. The master was safe in relying on Mr. Capon, the men would sometimes say to us, when we wandered, as we liked to do, over the busy noisy mills; he was one to be trusted. We used to smile at the expression, which seemed to them to mean so much, and when Horace would join us from the offices, what wonder was it if we saw a new power in his handsome face, and in his tone of genial yet irresistible authority? And could we warn each other of the feeling which was growing equally in both our hearts? Could we always remember that for one of us this feeling must end in bitter and humiliating pain? It was to me that the pain came at last; very gradually, because it took me such a long, long time to believe it after it was told; yet very suddenly, because I had forgotten, as I said, that this love for Horace, which was growing equally in both our hearts, must end for one of us in bitter and humiliating pain. He had always treated us alike; coming home to us in the evenings, bringing a new element of strength and gaiety; interesting us no less than my father, and amusing and brightening my father no less than us. There was more laughter when he chatted with Elsie; but more earnestness when he talked with me. If he sang oftener with Elsie, he rode oftener with me; and if he fell beside Elsie oftener when we walked together, it was beside my chair that he would draw his own when he read aloud to us at night. And so the months sped on most happily for us, so equally loved and cared for that what wonder was it, as I said, that we forgot how this must end in a bitter humiliating pain for one?
I forget how it was that there first dawned on me the knowledge of one of my father's motives in having Horace Capon to live now in the house which he was eventually to occupy as master of the mills. I think he told me himself, one day, saying that Horace was even now as a son to him, the one man in all the world to whom he could most willingly give his daughter; and adding that he knew Elsie would always find a happy home with us. I listened quietly until the loving plan was all unfolded; then I went away and sat alone for hours, thinking of it, my cheeks burning even in my solitude, and my heart beating rapidly. What a future that was to dream of! From that hour, when my dreams lost their vagueness, and this one lay marked out in brightest hues before me, I was conscious of a new shyness in my manner to Horace; a timidity quite new to me, yet the most natural result of that dream which was buried now so deeply and so fixedly in my heart. I thought Elsie was too thoroughly wrapped up in her own bright thoughts to notice this, yet I knew that our love for each other then was true and unsuspicious. But the day came at last when, after one flash of nameless pain, that cloud fell slowly and heavily down between us.
I had found Elsie sitting in the morning sunshine, watching Horace; so I stood above her, watching too, in silence. He turned at the gate for a moment, to raise his hat with a smile, then hurried on down the hill, and disappeared through one of the great doors of the mills. Elsie rose then, but I was dreaming still, just as I had stood, a little way back from the window, my eyes upon the spot where Horace disappeared.
"Margaret," said Elsie softly, pausing as she faced me, "your eyes look warm and glad now; and—because Horace could not see—you answered his smile with one as bright as his. Then why have you been cold to him, and distant?"
"Cold!" I echoed in a whisper, and I could not bring my eyes back to her face; "Elsie dear, you do not understand."
She had both her hands upon my shoulders now, and her eyes were reading mine eagerly—ah, with such pained and breathless eagerness!
"O, Margaret," she cried, catching her breath in a great tearless sob, "tell me I am wrong! Say that I cannot read that in your face! O, no, no, no; it is not that!"
I put one arm around her, wondering that she should be so moved to read the secret which I must have guarded so much better than she had guarded hers.
"Elsie dear," I said, laying my cheek upon her bright bent head, "there was nothing in my face which need have given you this sudden pain."
"O yes," she cried, "O Margaret, yes, I saw."
She was weeping sorely, there with her eyes hidden on my breast, and her trembling fingers clasping me even to pain.
[Artist: Louis Huard]
"Elsie, what grieves you so?" I asked; "I cannot understand it."
"I—I must tell you, Margaret," she sobbed, keeping her face still hidden, "I must tell you; but—I never guessed—"
"Tell me," I whispered fondly, when she paused.
"Horace—Horace says—" she was uttering the words very rapidly below her breath, and with her head drooping so upon my breast that it was not easy to hear them—"Horace says—I mean he asked me—only yesterday—only yesterday, to be—his wife! O Margaret, I love him more than all the world; and yet I wish–I wish"
I think I put her gently from me, and made a feint of smiling; and I think that—groping blindly in my great misery—I spent that day just as I had spent other days which had been crowned with love and hope and pleasure. I think that I gave Horace my hand that night, and told him he would be very happy with Elsie; and I think that it was only Elsie who cried when we bade each other good-night. But I am not sure—I am sure of nothing save the anguished aching of my heart and head, and how, when that had been mine for many, many days, a great lonely coldness came and wrapped itself about my heart.
It was a happy and unruffled courtship, that of Horace's. My father gave his free consent to the marriage, and breathed no word of that disappointed plan of his; and my father's men, who all loved Elsie for her bright face and winning ways, made her young lover's heart rejoice with their praises of the wife whom he had chosen. And, day by day, it was my lot to watch this happy courtship, living entirely apart in my own inward life, and growing day by day more silent and more cold. But I felt that they would not notice this; it could not pain them, so closely were they bound now in each other. When Horace came home, of what value was my presence to Elsie—though until then she had liked to linger with me? When Elsie was near, what thought of Horace's would stray to me? Ah, what a bitter solitary time it was, and what hopeless and despairing thoughts possessed me! Why had he been given to her? His love was all the world to me; and she could have been made happy with other love, and would have turned brightly to accept another life. Sometimes I told myself that if he had loved me best, only for one day, I would have made it grow to such a strong which this happy and untroubled affection that he bore to Elsie would be a shadow only—if only the love had once been there to take root.
Never could he guess at any of these dreams which haunted me, but I noticed that he often now looked at me with a new and curious intentness, which warned me that this hidden selfish pain was changing even my outward self. It must have been this change which prompted them to plan for Elsie and me to travel to the seaside, and stay there until the summer waned.
If they had let me go alone—there or anywhere—I thought I might have gained health and strength and better thoughts; but Elsie would not leave me. The days had been hard enough to bear at home, but they were harder here. If I had been left to sit alone in silence on the cliffs, I could have loved perhaps, instead of chafing at, the lonely solemn sympathy of the sea; but Elsie seemed always near me, talking of home and Horace, until I nearly—ah, so very, very nearly!—grew to hate her very presence, dreading every word that her bright voice should utter, and wearying utterly of her smiling face. Left alone with her, and hearing her constantly speak of Horace in that tone of confident childlike happiness, it could not be but that I soon must hate her in my heart.
My father and Horace were to be with us in the afternoon, and in the morning Elsie and I went out to bathe together. There was no sunshine on the sea, but the water was fresh and full of motion, just as we liked it; so we laughed when we were told that there was danger of a sudden squall that day; that very few ladies had ventured out, and even they were returning now.
"Not that there's any danger, miss," the man said, as he hooked his horse's harness to the caravan which I had chosen; "only don't you think you'd better take one of the women with you?"
"We are not afraid; are we, Margaret?" smiled Elsie; "and we help each other quite enough."
Then she gave orders for her own machine to be wheeled close to mine in the sea, and ran up the steps with a smile and nod at me.
How well I remember the look of the sea that day, as I stepped into it, and Elsie came up to me with her dancing step and laughing eyes! So gray and sombre the water was, so wide and restless; so wide, so secret, and so safe. I shook away Elsie's clinging hands.
"Why do you hold me?" I cried. "Go away; do not come so close to me again."
"No, no; give me your hands, Margaret," she said, rising merrily, and shaking back her hair, after the noisy wave had passed over us and left us free to speak again. "Do you forget that they feared a sudden gust? We shall be all right if we are hand in hand."
"We are quite safe so, and it is pleasanter," I said, and threw myself beneath the water, trying hard to drown the happy sound of Elsie's laughter.
How wide and secret the sea was! and what a little thing she looked there, battling merrily with its waters, so strong against her little shielding hands! And what a horrible longing possessed me, yet what an over-mastering fear! Fear of what? Fear of the waters which I loved? Fear of Elsie's tiny power? Ah, no; what fear I had was fear of myself.
We were standing quite still, telling each other how calm the sea had grown all in a minute, and still with that distance between us, which I kept so carefully, when the squall came. A sudden violent rush of wind swept across the waters towards the shore; the waves reared themselves above us, then swooped down and dashed us helplessly upon the sand.
"Margaret! Margaret!"—I could hear Elsie's call as the great wave rolled on—"Your hands!—hold me, hold me!"
I fought my way to her, and took her hands, then I looked wildly round. The bathing-machines seemed to be miles away from us now, and one was thrown upon its side by that strong rush of wind and water. If we could reach it, we might support ourselves, perhaps, until help came. The shore looked like another world, to my hot anguished eyes, so far away, so far away. What was this singing in my ears? Was it the water still? I was strong and fearless now; no wave, however fierce and strong, would swallow me. The water was but shallow after all,—unless we fell.
"O Margaret, take me in your arms—my breath is going! You are so strong and calm; don't leave me, Margaret!"
Calm! There was such a tempest in my heart, that this tempest on the waters was as nothing to it.
"Margaret, where have the waves carried us? O, we are lost, we are lost!—help me, Margaret!"
I put my arms about her—this girl who had won from me all that made life precious—and I held her closely, very closely. She looked up from my arms, her eyes eagerly seeking comfort from mine, her lips parted for the question to come panting forth:
"Shall we be lost?"
Then, as if she had read a hopeless answer in my face, a piercing cry went up among the clouds:
"O Horace! Horace!"
More closely still I held her now, but held her where the waters must pass over her in their rush. My lips were tight and firm; my eyes upon that second mighty wave that came so fiercely to ingulf us.
"I am holding you, Elsie! Close your eyes, for it is coming!"
Bent and frail, she stood in my embrace, with her eyes closed, while the huge wave, which I could calmly stand and watch, came rolling on behind her. Then I held her down, firmly and steadily, beneath the water, battling the while for my own life and breath. When at last the sea grew calm again, and we were tossed no longer at its wild strong will, I had still my hands upon her shoulders, and under the waters I could see a white dead face. And my strength had not failed me even yet, for I was holding her so, when they found us, and lifted us together; whispering eagerly that one was living, but that the other had been for a long time dead.
I did not see Horace for a long time, so that when at last they. let me see him, the first bitterness of his grief was past. He asked me many things about that day, and I told him all—save the terrible truth that I had killed her. I told him how Elsie had clung to me in her fear, when that awful wind swept so suddenly across the sea; but how she had grown so weak at last and despairing, that she fell with the second wave, and never rose again. He sat beside me while I told him this, and then it seemed to grow natural to him to sit beside me; and at last I—watching his face—saw its sorrow fade, and the old look of content return to it. At first it was in silence that he sat beside me, and this silence I could understand and share; but gradually he would win me on to talk to him, and his eyes would brighten as he listened. So we grew dear friends again, dearer than we had ever been; and I forgot that white drowned face which lay now, side by side with my own mother, under the old cedar in our churchyard on the hill.
One night we had strolled there together to lay some autumn blossoms on the grave; and so long he lingered there in perfect silence, that all my fears and my despair came back to me in overwhelming force. He had forgotten me! Before his grave eyes was the bright childish face of her who had won his first love. He was wishing she had been saved, and I lost. Why had he brought me here where I could see the white drowned face, just as I saw it look when I held it still below the waters, after the angry death had passed? Should I be obliged to see it thus before me all my life?
Silently, as we had stood there, we turned from the grave side by side; then suddenly Horace clasped me in his arms and kissed me. So tenderly, and yet so passionately, he kissed me, under the quiet stars, that at that moment I knew I had won what I had so long craved for vainly. He had learned to give me a stronger and more fervent love than he had ever given to Elsie.
Horace and I had been married nearly a year, and this was Christmas-eve. My husband had been away for two or three days, but I knew he would return for Christmas-day, and so I sat waiting for him. Always I longed for his return when he had left me, but hardly ever so intensely as I longed for it this night. The wind was blowing fitfully; now rising in sudden gusts which brought back to me that horrible morning in the sea; and now lying lulled and calm, as it had been upon that autumn night when Horace and I had stood beside Elsie's grave in that strange silence which he broke at last to tell me with what strength and tenderness he loved me.
So strangely nervous and so timid I had grown, that when I heard my husband's step at last, I ran to meet him just as if he came as a deliverer.
"Frightened, my darling?" he questioned tenderly, as he led me back into the lighted room. "Tempestuous, is not it? but so beautiful out of doors. The moon is full, and the sky exquisite. Have you been out at all to-day?"
"Then, when dinner is over, I will take you. It will do you good, if you will put on plenty of furs; and it will do me good too, to have you walking at my side again. You are not afraid of this wind, my darling?"
"And I love it. Ah, how good it is to be home with you again, my wife!"
"Do you miss me when we are apart, then, Horace?"
I asked it eagerly, yet I knew well that the time had come of which I used to dream—he lavished on me now far more intensity of affection than he had ever given to his first love.
"Miss you!" he echoed, folding me within his arms and laying his lips most tenderly on mine. "There is no minute in any hour of my absence in which I do not miss you, darling; and if I tried to say how much, I should but fail."
"Because you love me so, Horace?"
"Because I love you so, my cherished wife."
"You never loved any one before, as you love me?"
"I never have—I never can—love any one as I love you, my own beloved."
I knew it so well; but still I loved to hear him say it.
The moon was riding gloriously through the frosty sky, when we started out together. Horace had himself fastened the soft furs about my neck, kissing me as he did so, and my heart beat joyously and proudly as I leaned on his strong arm, and felt that I was very precious to him.
So earnestly and happily were we talking, so perfect was the beauty of the night, that I had not noticed where we were going, until we stopped before a gate I knew, and Horace bent to open it.
"We have wandered here almost unconsciously, my darling," he said; "but we will go in and stand a moment in the quietness beside Elsie's grave. In our own intense happiness, we would not forget her upon this beautiful Christmas-night; and it is her birthday too, you remember, Margaret."
I shrank aside, and whispered, "Not to-night—not on Christmas-night—not on her birthday;" but Horace gently led me on, until we stood once more together beside that great square stone beneath the cedar. It was very chill and gloomy there, and I crept closer to my husband's side; very chill and very gloomy, even with his strong protecting arm around me. Why had he brought me here, when we had both learned to forget, and had grown so happy? If he would but speak—if he would but talk to me, and chase away these haunting memories which had not visited me since, in this very spot, he had told me how he loved me! If he would only tell me so again—loudly, that the words might drown this moaning in my ears, this rushing of the sea about my head, this cry of a faint and dying voice! Why had he breathed her name at all to-night, and raised this awful memory?
"O Horace, Horace, see the white dead face!"
My cry had not broken his long silence, so I knew it was uttered only in my heart. I looked up eagerly, that the glance of his kind eyes might give me courage; but that drowned face had come between us.
"O Horace," I cried, groping with my hands, "take it away; take it away! She would have you save her, and let me go!"
"Margaret, my darling, are you ill?"
I heard the question in my husband's soft kind tones, but there was something else I heard far more distinctly.
"Listen!" I cried, turning to face the blast of wind which came sweeping over the valley below; "listen!—listen!"
I waited for its coming with my arms outstretched, and when the storm had passed, and left me standing so, I fancied death had spared me once again, as it had done at sea, and I knew why. That story was to be told to Horace; here, by the grave where the voices moaned; now, before that second gust came sweeping by which had brought death before, and might bring death again. The white dead face beneath that stone cried out for justice now; the voices of the wind and sea cried out aloud their accusation. I had a task to do in the lull of that great storm, and I must do it. I drew away from my husband's side, and stood opposite him in the shadow of the cedar; my eyes fixed steadily upon him, and my words slow and clear.
Quite still he stood to listen, while I told him all; quite still until I had finished; then, after an utter terrible pause, he fell on his knees beside the stone, and hid his face upon it. I did not speak or move until he rose, after a long, long time; then I eagerly and piteously scanned his face, that I might glean only a ray of hope. Even in the shadow—for he was leaning now against the tree—I could see how rigid and how coldly white his face had grown.
"O Horace," I cried, falling on the grass before him, and appealing to him with my burning hands outstretched, "O my husband, all the sin there may have been, you caused. If I had not loved you—"
Coldly and sternly he interrupted me, bidding me come away from beside that grave.
"O Horace, take me back to your heart!" I pleaded. "Why did you bring me here? You would never have known, if you had not brought me here to-night, and we should have been happy now—as we were before. O Horace, I am the same Margaret whom you loved so dearly an hour ago—only a little hour ago—so dearly, you said; so dearly! I remember it, I remember every word. You missed me every minute of every hour of our separation, you said—O Horace, remember that, and take me back. See how I have loved you. If you had—had even done what I have done, tempted by your love for me, I should have wept and prayed for pardon for you, and comforted you, I think; and clung to you and pitied you; but never ceased to love you—never, never! O my husband, let it come slowly; love me a little—just a little—until I can bear its being taken all away!"
I pushed my hair away from my throbbing temples; something was burning in my head, and the noise the sea made in rushing over Elsie's face, was deafening me—deafening and blinding me, for I could not see Horace now; nothing but a dark still shadow; and between it and me, a girl with long wet hair and ashen cheeks.
"O Horace, take me back! We can be happy still—we know it, we have proved it; you have often said it. You can forget this. I had forgotten until you brought me here to-night, and that wave came rolling to us and left her face—Horace, Horace!" the words were an eager hurried whisper now—"take me up, Horace! I am dying here; dying at her feet and yours; or—or am—I—mad?"
He raised me from the grass, without a movement of his white and rigid face.
"I will take you to your home," he said, "and after that I wish that I might never look upon your face again."
"Why, Horace?" I whispered, with a vacant smile upon my parching lips; "we cannot be separated—you and I; we are married, you know; they cannot separate us."
"We are separated now," he answered slowly; "separated utterly and for ever."
"O no, Horace, no!" I cried, appealing to him once again with eager hands and eyes. "You will take me back? It was for your sake I did it, and you have loved me since, when I was just what I am now. You valued my love then. Ah, yes, I know you did, for that knowledge was my happiness, and I could not be deceived. You valued my love then; O, take it now, my husband—my own husband, whom no one can take from me—when it is a hundred times more earnest than it has ever been before!"
I could see his face in the moonlight now, and I knew there was no hope for me.
"Horace!" I cried, with such a cry as might have reached to the cold dead around us, "Horace—forgive!"
Coldly he drew back from me, and then—I laughed; laughed loudly and shrilly, there in the silence of the calm and beautiful night. But when I saw his stern white face grow colder still, I wondered why I had laughed.
"Nothing can separate us, Horace," I whispered, trying to fix my vacant gaze upon him, and smiling as I thought that my glad low whisper must comfort him. "Nothing can separate us now. Don't be frightened, Horace; you are my husband, and I will not leave you. Did you dream that I could be so cruel? I was not half so cruel to her as that would be."
He turned from me, shuddering through all his frame, and then I knew that the love, which had been my very life, was dead for ever. I saw, in all its fullest darkest horror, the long anguish of the life to which he doomed me; and standing still, I took my burning head within my hands and uttered shriek on shriek, until the silence of the winter night was all alive with sound, and the beauty of the moonlight vanished in a great black darkness.
I have been very, very ill. I wake to the knowledge slowly, as I lie and listen to the hushed breath and softened footsteps in my room. I wake to it very, very slowly, dreaming a wonderful dream the while.
I am lying in my own room at home, and Elsie sits beside my bed, just as she did when I was ill once in the old past—so many years ago; and my father comes for tidings of his child, with his eyes dim and anxious, just as I used to see them in that far-back time. Horace is living with us, in this dream of mine, just as he did then; and he, too, waits for tidings, and comes to look upon me with a soft slow step. Ah, if this dream may last a little longer; because, when I awake, my husband's face will meet me stern and cold, as it must be through all the rest of my sin-shadowed life; and instead of this bright face beside my bed, will be the memory of that drowned head I saw beneath the waters. It is far better to be dying, and to dream this dream, than grow quite strong and well, and meet my misery again. It is such a beautiful, beautiful dream!
I am lying now under the beech upon the lawn, and the golden leaves fall softly on me one by one; very softly, as if they fell a long, long way—perhaps from heaven itself. The sky is bright and blue up there above them, and the sunlight creeps amid their shelter to lay its warm sweet kiss upon my face. There are no fierce rushing storms of wind in this beautiful dream, and no driving waves. There is only peace and calm and sunshine, and the rare sweet fragrance of the autumn flowers I love. I dare not speak, lest I should break my dream.
I see my father standing against the golden beech, and watching me, with the old look of love upon his face. Elsie is beside me still, as she has been all through this peaceful dream, and in her eyes is shining such a look of loving pitiful compassion, that I cannot even trust myself to meet it, lest it should bring the tears, for tears would waken me. And now, across the lawn, comes Horace; his face the kind and pleasant face of long ago, the face I loved when I was innocent—so long ago! He comes up to me—softly as they all come in this dream of mine—and I read the old friendship in his eyes and something more; not hatred and contempt, ah, no, but a great tenderness and a great compassion, and something that looks almost like awe. I remember the different face which I shall see when I awake, and silently I pray that it may be God's will I die before the waking comes.
My hands are very weak and thin and wasted, and when he takes one into his, and kneels beside my couch, I can see the pity and the fear which darken Elsie's eyes. My voice is low and failing, but at last they understand my question, reading it more from my eyes than from my lips; and Elsie answers it in a whisper, her warm lips touching my cheek and forehead between the words:
"No dream, my darling; no dream. We have you with us, and we are nursing you back to health again. If care and love—the truest fondest love, my dear—can give you strength, then you will soon be your own self again."
So the words run, in this summer dream of mine. I have no pain, only a great faintness. If I were a leaf upon the beech above me, at the first faint breath of wind, I should fall just so—softly and slowly to the ground.
"Margaret," Elsie whispers, when her sweet face comes between those reddening leaves and my wide upturned eyes, "do you remember that day we were together in the sea, when the wind rose so suddenly? I want to tell you, O my dear, what the memory of that day has been to me."
I am awaking now—awaking with an icy shiver. In one moment my dream will be over—my beautiful summer dream.
"Tell me slowly—slowly," I plead, my broken words most eager in their utter weakness. "No—let Horace tell; then I shall be—awake. Tell me all, Horace."
"It is too much to tell to-day," he whispers, wrapping a shawl about me tenderly, for he does not know that I lie shivering there because I know I am awaking; "how can I tell, in a few simple words, that brave unselfish act of yours! How can I speak calmly, even yet, of how you saved my darling at the risk of your own life; of how, when she fainted and fell, you rescued her, and held her safe above the water until help came; then how you put her in safety, and—your strength all worn—sank down yourself, exhausted and unconscious; of how the fiercest wave of all came then, and we—we were barely in time to save you! How can I tell of this, and of our gratitude and love?"
Both their faces are near mine, full of the love he has just spoken of, and—is it the gratitude too? My eyes gather a little warmth and life from theirs. There is a feeling, utterly strange to me, upon my thin white lips—they are breaking into a smile.
"This is true, then? This is true, and the—the other was the dream?"
"All this is true, my darling; and we are true; and the sunshine and the flowers, they are all true. Everything is true, except those terrible delirious fancies which have been with you in your fever. That was the dream; but it has passed now, and all the fancies have passed too. Ah, there is a little look of returning health at last. You are coming back to us from the gates of death—O my dear, my dear, we shall be happy once again!"
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