Twas late afternoon when I re-entered, and ere supper was past ’twas time to retire for the night. The tension of these hours I still look back on as something altogether dreadful. Anne was quiet and gentle, unconscious of what had happened, yet with the fire of passion, I knew too well, burning in her heart. I was ill, restless, and abrupt, scarce able to speak lest I should betray my thoughts and show the war that raged in my breast.
I made some excuse for retiring early, bidding her good-night with as nonchalant an air as I could muster. The door of my bedroom I locked behind me, and I was alone in the darkened room to fight out my battles with myself.
I ask you if you can conceive any gentleman and man of honor in a more hazardous case. Whenever I tried to think on it, a mist came over my brain, and I could get little but unmeaning fantasies. I must either go or stay. So much was clear.
If I stayed — well, ’twas the Devil’s own work that was cut for me. There was no sign of the violence of the persecution abating. It might be many months, nay years, before the minister and Master Semple might return. If they came back no more, and I had sure tidings of their death, then indeed I might marry Anne. But ’twas so hazardous an uncertainty that I rejected it at once. No man could dwell with one whom he loved heart and soul so long a time on such uncertain chances and yet keep his honor. Had the maid been dull and passive, or had I been sluggish in blood, then there might have been hope. But we were both quick as the summer’s lightning.
If they came back, was not the fate of the girl more hard than words could tell? The minister in all likelihood would already have gone the way of all the earth; and she, poor lass, would be left to the care of a madman for whom she had no spark of liking. I pictured her melancholy future. Her pure body subject to the embraces of a loathsome fanatic, her delicate love of the joys of life all subdued to his harsh creed. Oh, God! I swore that I could not endure it. Her face, so rounded and lovely, would grow pinched and white, her eyes would lose all their luster, her hair would not cluster lovingly about her neck, her lithe grace would be gone, her footsteps would be heavy and sad. He would rave his unmeaning gibberish in her ears, would ill-treat her, it might be; in any case would be a perpetual sorrow to her heart. “Oh, Anne,” I cried, “though I be damned for it, I will save you from this!”
If I left the place at once and forever, then indeed my honor would be kept, but yet not all; for my plighted word — where would it be? I had sworn that come what may I should stand by the maid and protect her against what evil might come to the house. Now I was thinking of fleeing from my post like a coward, and all because the girl’s eyes were too bright for my weak resolution. When her lover returned, if he ever came, what story would she have to tell? This, without a doubt: “The man whom you left has gone, fled like a thief in the night, for what reason I know not.” For though I knew well that she would divine the real cause of my action, I could not suppose that she would tell it, for thereby she would cast grave suspicion upon herself. So there would I be, a perjured traitor, a false friend in the eyes of those who had trusted me.
But more, the times were violent, Clachlands and its soldiery were not far off, and once they learned that the girl was unprotected no man knew what evil might follow. You may imagine how bitter this thought was to me, the thought of leaving my love in the midst of terrible dangers. Nay, more; a selfish consideration weighed not a little with me. The winter had all but come; the storms of this black land I dreaded like one born and bred in the South; I knew nothing of my future course; I was poor, bare, and friendless. The manse was a haven of shelter. Without it I should be even as the two exiles in the hills. The cold was hard to endure; I dearly loved warmth and comfort; the moors were as fearful to me as the deserts of Muscovy.
One course remained. Anne had money; this much I knew. She loved me, and would obey my will in all things; of this I was certain. What hindered me to take her to France, the land of mirth and all pleasant things, and leave the North and its wild folk behind forever? With money we could travel expeditiously. Once in my own land perchance I might find some way to repair my fortunes, for a fair wife is a wonderous incentive. There beneath soft skies, in the mellow sunshine, among a cheerful people, she would find the life which she loved best. What deterred me? Nothing but a meaningless vow and some antiquated scruples. But I would be really keeping my word, I reasoned casuistically with myself, for I had sworn to take care of Anne, and what way so good as to take her to my own land where she would be far from the reach of fanatic or dragoon? And this was my serious thought, comprenez bien! I set it down as a sign of the state to which I had come, that I was convinced by my own quibbling. I pictured to myself what I should do. I would find her at breakfast in the morning. “Anne,” I would say, “I love you dearly; may I think that you love me likewise?” I could fancy her eager, passionate reply, and then —— I almost felt the breath of her kisses on my cheek and the touch of her soft arms on my neck.
Some impulse led me to open the casement and look forth into the windy, inscrutable night. A thin rain distilled on the earth, and the coolness was refreshing to my hot face. The garden was black, and the bushes were marked by an increased depth of darkness. But on the grass to the left I saw a long shaft of light, the reflection from some lit window of the house. I passed rapidly in thought over the various rooms there, and with a start came to an end. Without a doubt ’twas Anne’s sleeping room. What did the lass with a light, for ’twas near midnight? I did not hesitate about the cause, and ’twas one which inflamed my love an hundredfold. She was sleepless, love-sick maybe (such is the vanity of man). Maybe even now my name was the one on her lips, and my image the foremost in her mind. My finger-tips tingled, as the blood surged into them; and I am not ashamed to say that my eyes were not tearless. Could I ever leave my love for some tawdry honor? Mille tonneres! the thing was not to be dreamed of. I blamed myself for having once admitted the thought.
My decision was taken, and, as was always my way, I felt somewhat easier. I was weary, so I cast myself down upon the bed without undressing, and fell into a profound sleep.
How long I slept I cannot tell, but in that brief period of unconsciousness I seemed to be living ages. I saw my past life all inverted as ‘twere; for my first sight was the horror of the moors. Quentin Kennedy, and the quarrel and the black desolation which I had undergone. I went through it all again, vividly, acutely. Then it passed, and I had my manhood in France before my eyes. And curiously enough, ’twas not alone, but confused with my childhood and youth. I was an experienced man of the world, versed in warfare and love, taverns and brawls, and yet not one whit jaded, but fresh and hopeful and boylike. ’Twas a very pleasing feeling. I was master of myself. I had all my self-respect. I was a man of unblemished honor, undoubted valor. Then by an odd trick of memory all kinds of associations became linked with it. The old sights and sounds of Rohaine: cocks crowing in the morning; the smell of hay and almond-blossom, roses and summer lilies; the sight of green leaves, of the fish leaping in the river; the plash of the boat’s oars among the water-weeds — all the sensations of childhood came back with extraordinary clarity. I heard my mother’s grave, tender speech bidding us children back from play, or soothing one when he hurt himself. I could almost believe that my father’s strong voice was ringing in my ear, when he would tell stories of the chase and battle, or sing ballads of long ago, or bid us go to the devil if we pleased, but go like gentlemen. ’Twas a piece of sound philosophy, and often had it been before me in Paris, when I shrank from nothing save where my honor as a gentleman was threatened. In that dream the old saying came on me with curious force. I felt it to be a fine motto for life, and I was exulting in my heart that ’twas mine, and that I had never stained the fair fame of my house.
Suddenly, with a start I seemed to wake to the consciousness that ’twas mine no more. Still dreaming, I was aware that I had deceived a lover, and stolen his mistress and made her my bride. I have never felt such acute anguish as I did in that sleep when the thought came upon me. I felt nothing more of pride. All things had left me. My self-respect was gone like a ragged cloak. All the old, dear life was shut out from me by a huge barrier. Comfortable, rich, loving, and beloved, I was yet in the very jaws of Hell. I felt myself biting out my tongue in my despair. My brain was on fire with sheer and awful regret. I cursed the day when I had been tempted and fallen.
And then, even while I dreamed, another sight came to my eyes — the face of a lady, young, noble, with eyes like the Blessed Mother. In my youth I had laid my life at the feet of a girl, and I was in hopes of making her my wife. But Cecilia was too fair for this earth, and I scarcely dared to look upon her she seemed so saint-like. When she died in the Forest of Arnay, killed by a fall from her horse, ’twas I who carried her to her home, and since that day her face was never far distant from my memory. I cherished the image as my dearest possession, and oftentimes when I would have embarked upon some madness I refrained, fearing the reproof of those grave eyes. But now this was all gone. My earthy passion had driven out my old love; all memories were rapt from me save that of the sordid present.
The very violence of my feeling awoke me, and I found myself sitting up in bed with a mouthful of blood. Sure enough, I had gnawed my tongue till a red froth was over my lips. My heart was beating like a windmill in a high gale, and a deadly sickness of mind oppressed me. ’Twas some minutes before I could think; and then — oh, joy! the relief! I had not yet taken the step irremediable. The revulsion, the sudden ecstasy drove in a trice my former resolution into thinnest air.
I looked out of the window. ’Twas dawn, misty and wet. Thank God, I was still in the land of the living, still free to make my life. The tangible room, half lit by morning, gave me a promise of reality after the pageant of the dream. My path was clear before me, clear and straight as an arrow; and yet even now I felt a dread of my passion overcoming my resolve, and was in a great haste to have done with it all. My scruples about my course were all gone. I would be breaking my oath, ’twas true, in leaving the maid, but keeping it in the better way. The thought of the dangers to which she would be exposed stabbed me like a dart. It had almost overcome me. “But honor is more than life or love,” I said, as I set my teeth with stern purpose.
Yet, though all my soul was steeled into resolution, there was no ray of hope in my heart — nothing but a dead, bleak outlook, a land of moors and rain, an empty purse and an aimless journey.
I had come to the house a beggar scarce two months before. I must now go as I had come, not free and careless as then, but bursting shackles of triple brass. My old ragged garments, which I had discarded on the day after my arrival, lay on a chair, neatly folded by Anne’s deft hand. It behooved me to take no more away than that which I had brought, so I must needs clothe myself in these poor remnants of finery, thin and mud-stained, and filled with many rents.