A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 67.

On reaching the house, a formal man-servant, with indifferent face, transferred me to the guidance of a hired nurse, who led me up the stairs, and, before I was well aware of it, into the room in which Dr. Lloyd had died. Widely different, indeed, the aspect of the walls, the character of the furniture! The dingy paperhangings were replaced by airy muslins, showing a rose-coloured ground through their fanciful openwork; luxurious fauteuils, gilded wardrobes, full-length mirrors, a toilet-table tricked out with lace and ribbons; and glittering with an array of silver gewgaws and jewelled trinkets — all transformed the sick chamber of the simple man of science to a boudoir of death for the vain coquette. But the room itself, in its high lattice and heavy ceiling, was the same — as the coffin itself has the same confines, whether it be rich in velvets and bright with blazoning, or rude as a pauper’s shell.

And the bed, with its silken coverlet, and its pillows edged with the thread-work of Louvain, stood in the same sharp angle as that over which had flickered the frowning smoke-reek above the dying, resentful foe. As I approached, a man, who was seated beside the sufferer, turned round his face, and gave me a silent kindly nod of recognition. He was Mr. C— — one of the clergy of the town, the one with whom I had the most frequently come into contact wherever the physician resigns to the priest the language that bids man hope. Mr. C—— — as a preacher, was renowned for his touching eloquence; as a pastor, revered for his benignant piety; as friend and neighbour, beloved for a sweetness of nature which seemed to regulate all the movements of a mind eminently masculine by the beat of a heart tender as the gentlest woman’s.

This good man; then whispering something to the sufferer which I did not overhear, stole towards me, took me by the hand, and said, also in a whisper, “Be merciful as Christians are.” He led me to the bedside, there left me, went out, and closed the door.

“Do you think I am really dying, Dr. Fenwick?” said a feeble voice. “I fear Dr. Jones has misunderstood my case. I wish I had called you in at the first, but — but I could not — I could not! Will you feel my pulse? Don’t you think you could do me good?”

I had no need to feel the pulse in that skeleton wrist; the aspect of the face sufficed to tell me that death was drawing near.

Mechanically, however, I went through the hackneyed formulae of professional questions. This vain ceremony done, as gently and delicately as I could, I implied the expediency of concluding, if not yet settled, those affairs which relate to this world.

“This duty,” I said, “in relieving the mind from care for others to whom we owe the forethought of affection, often relieves the body also of many a gnawing pain, and sometimes, to the surprise of the most experienced physician, prolongs life itself.”

“Ah,” said the old maid, peevishly, “I understand! But it is not my will that troubles me. I should not be left to a nurse from a hospital if my relations did not know that my annuity dies with me; and I forestalled it in furnishing this house, Dr. Fenwick, and all these pretty things will be sold to pay those horrid tradesmen! — very hard! — so hard! — just as I got things about me in the way I always said I would have them if I could ever afford it! I always said I would have my bedroom hung with muslin, like dear Lady L——‘s; and the drawing-room in geranium-coloured silk: so pretty. You have not seen it: you would not know the house, Dr. Fenwick. And just when all is finished, to be taken away and thrust into the grave. It is so cruel!” And she began to weep. Her emotion brought on a violent paroxysm, which, when she recovered from it, had produced one of those startling changes of mind that are sometimes witnessed before death — changes whereby the whole character of a life seems to undergo solemn transformation. The hard will becomes gentle, the proud meek, the frivolous earnest. That awful moment when the things of earth pass away like dissolving scenes, leaving death visible on the background by the glare that shoots up in the last flicker of life’s lamp.

And when she lifted her haggard face from my shoulder, and heard my pitying, soothing voice, it was not the grief of a trifler at the loss of fondled toys that spoke in the fallen lines of her lip, in the woe of her pleading eyes.

“So this is death,” she said. “I feel it hurrying on. I must speak. I promised Mr. C—— that I would. Forgive me, can you — can you? That letter — that letter to Lilian Ashleigh, I wrote it! Oh, do not look at me so terribly; I never thought it could do such evil! And am I not punished enough? I truly believed when I wrote that Miss Ashleigh was deceiving you, and once I was silly enough to fancy that you might have liked me. But I had another motive; I had been so poor all my life — I had become rich unexpectedly; I set my heart on this house — I had always fancied it — and I thought if I could prevent Miss Ashleigh marrying you, and scare her and her mother from coming back to L— — I could get the house. And I did get it. What for? — to die. I had not been here a week before I got the hurt that is killing me — a fall down the stairs — coming out of this very room; the stairs had been polished. If I had stayed in my old lodging, it would not have happened. Oh, say you forgive me! Say, say it, even if you do not feel you can! Say it!” And the miserable woman grasped me by the arm as Dr. Lloyd had grasped me.

I shaded my averted face with my hands; my heart heaved with the agony of my suppressed passion. A wrong, however deep, only to myself, I could have pardoned without effort; such a wrong to Lilian — no! I could not say “I forgive.”

The dying wretch was perhaps more appalled by my silence than she would have been by my reproach. Her voice grew shrill in her despair.

“You will not pardon me! I shall die with your curse on my head! Mercy! mercy! That good man, Mr. C— — assured me you would be merciful. Have you never wronged another? Has the Evil One never tempted you?”

Then I spoke in broken accents: “Me! Oh, had it been I whom you defamed — but a young creature so harmless, so unoffending, and for so miserable a motive!”

“But I tell you, I swear to you, I never dreamed I could cause such sorrow; and that young man, that Margrave, put it into my head!”

“Margrave! He had left L—— long before that letter was written!”

“But he came back for a day just before I wrote: it was the very day. I met him in the lane yonder. He asked after you — after Miss Ashleigh; and when he spoke he laughed, and I said, ‘Miss Ashleigh had been ill, and was gone away;’ and he laughed again. And I thought he knew more than he would tell me, so I asked him if he supposed Mrs. Ashleigh would come back, and said how much I should like to take this house if she did not; and again he laughed, and said, ‘Birds never stay in the nest after the young ones are hurt,’ and went away singing. When I got home, his laugh and his song haunted me. I thought I saw him still in my room, prompting me to write, and I sat down and wrote. Oh, pardon, pardon me! I have been a foolish poor creature, but never meant to do such harm. The Evil One tempted me! There he is, near me now! I see him yonder! there, at the doorway. He comes to claim me! As you hope for mercy yourself, free me from him! Forgive me!”

I made an effort over myself. In naming Margrave as her tempter, the woman had suggested an excuse, echoed from that innermost cell of my mind, which I recoiled from gazing into, for there I should behold his image. Inexpiable though the injury she had wrought against me and mine, still the woman was human — fellow-creature-like myself; — but he?

I took the pale hand that still pressed my arm, and said, with firm voice —

“Be comforted. In the name of Lilian, my wife, I forgive you for her and for me as freely and as fully as we are enjoined by Him, against whose precepts the best of us daily sin, to forgive — we children of wrath — to forgive one another!”

“Heaven bless you! — oh, bless you!” she murmured, sinking back upon her pillow.

“Ah!” thought I, “what if the pardon I grant for a wrong far deeper than I inflicted on him whose imprecation smote me in this chamber, should indeed be received as atonement, and this blessing on the lips of the dying annul the dark curse that the dead has left on my path through the Valley of the Shadow!”

I left my patient sleeping quietly — the sleep that precedes the last. As I went down the stairs into the hall, I saw Mrs. Poyntz standing at the threshold, speaking to the man-servant and the nurse.

I would have passed her with a formal bow, but she stopped me.

“I came to inquire after poor Miss Brabazon,” said she.

“You can tell me more than the servants can: is there no hope?”

“Let the nurse go up and watch beside her. She may pass away in the sleep into which she has fallen.”

“Allen Fenwick, I must speak with you — nay, but for a few minutes. I hear that you leave L—— tomorrow. It is scarcely among the chances of life that we should meet again.” While thus saying, she drew me along the lawn down the path that led towards her own home. “I wish,” said she, earnestly, “that you could part with a kindlier feeling towards me; but I can scarcely expect it. Could I put myself in your place, and be moved by your feelings, I know that I should be implacable; but I—”

“But you, madam, are The World! and the World governs itself, and dictates to others, by laws which seem harsh to those who ask from its favour the services which the World cannot tender, for the World admits favourites, but ignores friends. You did but act to me as the World ever acts to those who mistake its favour for its friendship.”

“It is true,” said Mrs. Poyntz, with blunt candour; and we continued to walk on silently. At length she said abruptly, “But do you not rashly deprive yourself of your only consolation in sorrow? When the heart suffers, does your skill admit any remedy like occupation to the mind? Yet you abandon that occupation to which your mind is most accustomed; you desert your career; you turn aside, in the midst of the race, from the fame which awaits at the goal; you go back from civilization itself, and dream that all your intellectual cravings can find content in the life of a herdsman, amidst the monotony of a wild! No, you will repent, for you are untrue to your mind!”

“I am sick of the word ‘mind’!” said I, bitterly. And therewith I relapsed into musing.

The enigmas which had foiled my intelligence in the unravelled Sibyl Book of Nature were mysteries strange to every man’s normal practice of thought, even if reducible to the fraudulent impressions of outward sense; for illusions in a brain otherwise healthy suggest problems in our human organization which the colleges that record them rather guess at than solve. But the blow which had shattered my life had been dealt by the hand of a fool. Here, there were no mystic enchantments. Motives the most commonplace and paltry, suggested to a brain as trivial and shallow as ever made the frivolity of woman a theme for the satire of poets, had sufficed, in devastating the field of my affections, to blast the uses for which I had cultured my mind; and had my intellect been as great as heaven ever gave to man, it would have been as vain a shield as mine against the shaft that bad lodged in my heart. While I had, indeed, been preparing my reason and my fortitude to meet such perils, weird and marvellous, as those by which tales round the winter fireside scare the credulous child, a contrivance — so vulgar and hackneyed that not a day passes but what some hearth is vexed by an anonymous libel — had wrought a calamity more dread than aught which my dark guess into the Shadow–Land unpierced by Philosophy could trace to the prompting of malignant witchcraft. So, ever this truth runs through all legends of ghost and demon — through the uniform records of what wonder accredits and science rejects as the supernatural — lo! the dread machinery whose wheels roll through Hades! What need such awful engines for such mean results? The first blockhead we meet in our walk to our grocer’s can tell us more than the ghost tells us; the poorest envy we ever aroused hurts us more than the demon. How true an interpreter is Genius to Hell as to Earth! The Fiend comes to Faust, the tired seeker of knowledge; Heaven and Hell stake their cause in the Mortal’s temptation. And what does the Fiend to astonish the Mortal? Turn wine into fire, turn love into crime. We need no Mephistopheles to accomplish these marvels every day!

Thus silently thinking, I walked by the side of the world-wise woman; and when she next spoke, I looked up, and saw that we were at the Monks’ Well, where I had first seen Lilian gazing into heaven!

Mrs. Poyntz had, as we walked, placed her hand on my arm; and, turning abruptly from the path into the glade, I found myself standing by her side in the scene where a new sense of being had first disclosed to my sight the hues with which Love, the passionate beautifier, turns into purple and gold the gray of the common air. Thus, when romance has ended in sorrow, and the Beautiful fades from the landscape, the trite and positive forms of life, banished for a time, reappear, and deepen our mournful remembrance of the glories they replace. And the Woman of the World, finding how little I was induced to respond to her when she had talked of myself, began to speak, in her habitual clear, ringing accents, of her own social schemes and devices —

“I shall miss you when you are gone, Allen Fenwick; for though, during the last year or so, all actual intercourse between us has ceased, yet my interest in you gave some occupation to my thoughts when I sat alone — having lost my main object of ambition in settling my daughter, and having no longer any one in the house with whom I could talk of the future, or for whom I could form a project. It is so wearisome to count the changes which pass within us, that we take interest in the changes that pass without. Poyntz still has his weather-glass; I have no longer my Jane.”

“I cannot linger with you on this spot,” said I, impatiently turning back into the path; she followed, treading over fallen leaves. And unheeding my interruption, she thus continued her hard talk —

“But I am not sick of my mind, as you seem to be of yours; I am only somewhat tired of the little cage in which, since it has been alone, it ruffles its plumes against the flimsy wires that confine it from wider space. I shall take up my home for a time with the new-married couple: they want me. Ashleigh Sumner has come into parliament. He means to attend regularly and work hard, but he does not like Jane to go into the world by herself, and he wishes her to go into the world, because he wants a wife to display his wealth for the improvement of his position. In Ashleigh Sumner’s house I shall have ample scope for my energies, such as they are. I have a curiosity to see the few that perch on the wheels of the State and say, ‘It is we who move the wheels!’ It will amuse me to learn if I can maintain in a capital the authority I have won in a country town; if not, I can but return to my small principality. Wherever I live I must sway, not serve. If I succeed — as I ought, for in Jane’s beauty and Ashleigh’s fortune I have materials for the woof of ambition, wanting which here, I fall asleep over my knitting — if I succeed, there will be enough to occupy the rest of my life. Ashleigh Sumner must be a power; the power will be represented and enjoyed by my child, and created and maintained by me! Allen Fenwick, do as I do. Be world with the world, and it will only be in moments of spleen and chagrin that you will sigh to think that the heart may be void when the mind is full. Confess you envy me while you listen.”

“Not so; all that to you seems so great appears to me so small! Nature alone is always grand, in her terrors as well as her charms. The World for you, Nature for me. Farewell!”

“Nature!” said Mrs. Poyntz, compassionately. “Poor Allen Fenwick! Nature indeed — intellectual suicide! Nay, shake hands, then, if for the last time.”

So we shook hands and parted, where the wicket-gate and the stone stairs separated my blighted fairy-land from the common thoroughfare.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31