Yeast: a Problem, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter 16

Once in a Way

A few mornings afterwards, Lancelot, as he glanced his eye over the columns of The Times, stopped short at the beloved name of Whitford. To his disgust and disappointment, it only occurred in one of those miserable cases, now of weekly occurrence, of concealing the birth of a child. He was turning from it, when he saw Bracebridge’s name. Another look sufficed to show him that he ought to go at once to the colonel, who had returned the day before from Norway.

A few minutes brought him to his friend’s lodging, but The Times had arrived there before him. Bracebridge was sitting over his untasted breakfast, his face buried in his hands.

‘Do not speak to me,’ he said, without looking up. ‘It was right of you to come — kind of you; but it is too late.’

He started, and looked wildly round him, as if listening for some sound which he expected, and then laid his head down on the table. Lancelot turned to go.

‘No — do not leave me! Not alone, for God’s sake, not alone!’

Lancelot sat down. There was a fearful alteration in Bracebridge. His old keen self-confident look had vanished. He was haggard, life-weary, shame-stricken, almost abject. His limbs looked quite shrunk and powerless, as he rested his head on the table before him, and murmured incoherently from time to time —

‘My own child! And I never shall have another! No second chance for those who — Oh Mary! Mary! you might have waited — you might have trusted me! And why should you? — ay, why, indeed? And such a pretty baby, too! — just like his father!’

Lancelot laid his hand kindly on his shoulder.

‘My dearest Bracebridge, the evidence proves that the child was born dead.’

‘They lie!’ he said, fiercely, starting up. ‘It cried twice after it was born!’

Lancelot stood horror-struck.

‘I heard it last night, and the night before that, and the night before that again, under my pillow, shrieking — stifling — two little squeaks, like a caught hare; and I tore the pillows off it — I did; and once I saw it, and it had beautiful black eyes — just like its father — just like a little miniature that used to lie on my mother’s table, when I knelt at her knee, before they sent me out “to see life,” and Eton, and the army, and Crockford’s, and Newmarket, and fine gentlemen, and fine ladies, and luxury, and flattery, brought me to this! Oh, father! father! was that the only way to make a gentleman of your son? — There it is again! Don’t you hear it? — under the sofa cushions! Tear them off! Curse you! Save it!’

And, with a fearful oath, the wretched man sent Lancelot staggering across the room, and madly tore up the cushions.

A long postman’s knock at the door. — He suddenly rose up quite collected.

‘The letter! I knew it would come. She need not have written it: I know what is in it.’

The servant’s step came up the stairs. Poor Bracebridge turned to Lancelot with something of his own stately determination.

‘I must be alone when I receive this letter. Stay here.’ And with compressed lips and fixed eyes he stalked out at the door, and shut it.

Lancelot heard him stop; then the servant’s footsteps down the stairs; then the colonel’s treading, slowly and heavily, went step by step up to the room above. He shut that door too. A dead silence followed. Lancelot stood in fearful suspense, and held his breath to listen. Perhaps he had fainted? No, for then he would have heard a fall. Perhaps he had fallen on the bed? He would go and see. No, he would wait a little longer. Perhaps he was praying? He had told Lancelot to pray once — he dared not interrupt him now. A slight stir — a noise as of an opening box. Thank God, he was, at least, alive! Nonsense! Why should he not be alive? What could happen to him? And yet he knew that something was going to happen. The silence was ominous — unbearable; the air of the room felt heavy and stifling, as if a thunderstorm were about to burst. He longed to hear the man raging and stamping. And yet he could not connect the thought of one so gay and full of gallant life, with the terrible dread that was creeping over him — with the terrible scene which he had just witnessed. It must be all a temporary excitement — a mistake — a hideous dream, which the next post would sweep away. He would go and tell him so. No, he could not stir. His limbs seemed leaden, his feet felt rooted to the ground, as in long nightmare. And still the intolerable silence brooded overhead.

What broke it? A dull, stifled report, as of a pistol fired against the ground; a heavy fall; and again the silence of death.

He rushed upstairs. A corpse lay on its face upon the floor, and from among its hair, a crimson thread crept slowly across the carpet. It was all over. He bent over the head, but one look was sufficient. He did not try to lift it up.

On the table lay the fatal letter. Lancelot knew that he had a right to read it. It was scrawled, mis-spelt — but there were no tear-blots on the paper:—

‘Sir — I am in prison — and where are you? Cruel man! Where were you all those miserable weeks, while I was coming nearer and nearer to my shame? Murdering dumb beasts in foreign lands. You have murdered more than them. How I loved you once! How I hate you now! But I have my revenge. Your baby cried twice after it was born!’

Lancelot tore the letter into a hundred pieces, and swallowed them, for every foot in the house was on the stairs.

So there was terror, and confusion, and running in and out: but there were no wet eyes there except those of Bracebridge’s groom, who threw himself on the body, and would not stir. And then there was a coroner’s inquest; and it came out in the evidence how ‘the deceased had been for several days very much depressed, and had talked of voices and apparitions;’ whereat the jury — as twelve honest, good-natured Christians were bound to do — returned a verdict of temporary insanity; and in a week more the penny-a-liners grew tired; and the world, too, who never expects anything, not even French revolutions, grew tired also of repeating — ‘Dear me! who would have expected it?’ and having filled up the colonel’s place, swaggered on as usual, arm-inarm with the flesh and the devil.

Bracebridge’s death had, of course, a great effect on Lancelot’s spirit. Not in the way of warning, though — such events seldom act in that way, on the highest as well as on the lowest minds. After all, your ‘Rakes’ Progresses,’ and ‘Atheists’ Deathbeds,’ do no more good than noble George Cruikshank’s ‘Bottle’ will, because every one knows that they are the exception, and not the rule; that the Atheist generally dies with a conscience as comfortably callous as a rhinocerous-hide; and the rake, when old age stops his power of sinning, becomes generally rather more respectable than his neighbours. The New Testament deals very little in appeals ad terrorem; and it would be well if some, who fancy that they follow it, would do the same, and by abstaining from making ‘hell-fire’ the chief incentive to virtue, cease from tempting many a poor fellow to enlist on the devil’s side the only manly feeling he has left — personal courage.

But yet Lancelot was affected. And when, on the night of the colonel’s funeral, he opened, at hazard, Argemone’s Bible, and his eyes fell on the passage which tells how ‘one shall be taken and another left,’ great honest tears of gratitude dropped upon the page; and he fell on his knees, and in bitter self-reproach thanked the new found Upper Powers, who, as he began to hope, were leading him not in vain — that he had yet a life before him wherein to play the man.

And now he felt that the last link was broken between him and all his late frivolous companions. All had deserted him in his ruin but this one — and he was silent in the grave. And now, from the world and all its toys and revelry, he was parted once and for ever; and he stood alone in the desert, like the last Arab of a plague-stricken tribe, looking over the wreck of ancient cities, across barren sands, where far rivers gleamed in the distance, that seemed to beckon him away into other climes, other hopes, other duties. Old things had passed away — when would all things become new?

Not yet, Lancelot. Thou hast still one selfish hope, one dream of bliss, however impossible, yet still cherished. Thou art a changed man — but for whose sake? For Argemone’s. Is she to be thy god, then? Art thou to live for her, or for the sake of One greater than she? All thine idols are broken — swiftly the desert sands are drifting over them, and covering them in. — All but one — must that, too, be taken from thee?

One morning a letter was put into Lancelot’s hands, bearing the Whitford postmark. Tremblingly he tore it open. It contained a few passionate words from Honoria. Argemone was dying of typhus fever, and entreating to see him once again; and Honoria had, with some difficulty, as she hinted, obtained leave from her parents to send for him. His last bank note carried him down to Whitford; and, calm and determined, as one who feels that he has nothing more to lose on earth, and whose torment must henceforth become his element, he entered the Priory that evening.

He hardly spoke or looked at a soul; he felt that he was there on an errand which none understood; that he was moving towards Argemone through a spiritual world, in which he and she were alone; that, in his utter poverty and hopelessness, he stood above all the luxury, even above all the sorrow, around him; that she belonged to him, and to him alone; and the broken-hearted beggar followed the weeping Honoria towards his lady’s chamber, with the step and bearing of a lord. He was wrong; there were pride and fierceness enough in his heart, mingled with that sense of nothingness of rank, money, chance and change, yea, death itself, of all but Love; — mingled even with that intense belief that his sorrows were but his just deserts, which now possessed all his soul. And in after years he knew that he was wrong; but so he felt at the time; and even then the strength was not all of earth which bore him manlike through that hour.

He entered the room; the darkness, the silence, the cool scent of vinegar, struck a shudder through him. The squire was sitting half idiotic and helpless, in his arm-chair. His face lighted up as Lancelot entered, and he tried to hold out his palsied hand. Lancelot did not see him. Mrs. Lavington moved proudly and primly back from the bed, with a face that seemed to say through its tears, ‘I at least am responsible for nothing that occurs from this interview.’ Lancelot did not see her either: he walked straight up towards the bed as if he were treading on his own ground. His heart was between his lips, and yet his whole soul felt as dry and hard as some burnt-out volcano-crater.

A faint voice — oh, how faint, how changed! — called him from within the closed curtains.

‘He is there! I know it is he! Lancelot! my Lancelot!’

Silently still he drew aside the curtain; the light fell full upon her face. What a sight! Her beautiful hair cut close, a ghastly white handkerchief round her head, those bright eyes sunk and lustreless, those ripe lips baked, and black and drawn; her thin hand fingering uneasily the coverlid. — It was too much for him. He shuddered and turned his face away. Quick-sighted that love is, even to the last! slight as the gesture was, she saw it in an instant.

‘You are not afraid of infection?’ she said, faintly. ‘I was not.’

Lancelot laughed aloud, as men will at strangest moments, sprung towards her with open arms, and threw himself on his knees beside the bed. With sudden strength she rose upright, and clasped him in her arms.

‘Once more!’ she sighed, in a whisper to herself, ‘Once more on earth!’ And the room, and the spectators, and disease itself faded from around them like vain dreams, as she nestled closer and closer to him, and gazed into his eyes, and passed her shrunken hand over his cheeks, and toyed with his hair, and seemed to drink in magnetic life from his embrace.

No one spoke or stirred. They felt that an awful and blessed spirit overshadowed the lovers, and were hushed, as if in the sanctuary of God.

Suddenly again she raised her head from his bosom, and in a tone, in which her old queenliness mingled strangely with the saddest tenderness —

‘All of you go away now; I must talk to my husband alone.’

They went, leading out the squire, who cast puzzled glances toward the pair, and murmured to himself that ‘she was sure to get well now Smith was come: everything went right when he was in the way.’

So they were left alone.

‘I do not look so very ugly, my darling, do I? Not so very ugly? though they have cut off all my poor hair, and I told them so often not! But I kept a lock for you;’ and feebly she drew from under the pillow a long auburn tress, and tried to wreathe it round his neck, but could not, and sunk back.

Poor fellow! he could bear no more. He hid his face in his hands, and burst into a long low weeping.

‘I am very thirsty, darling; reach me — No, I will drink no more, except from your dear lips.’

He lifted up his head, and breathed his whole soul upon her lips; his tears fell on her closed eyelids.

‘Weeping? No. — You must not cry. See how comfortable I am. They are all so kind — soft bed, cool room, fresh air, sweet drinks, sweet scents. Oh, so different from that room!’

‘What room? — my own!’

‘Listen, and I will tell you. Sit down — put your arm under my head — so. When I am on your bosom I feel so strong. God! let me last to tell him all. It was for that I sent for him.’

And then, in broken words, she told him how she had gone up to the fever patient at Ashy, on the fatal night on which Lancelot had last seen her. Shuddering, she hinted at the horrible filth and misery she had seen, at the foul scents which had sickened her. A madness of remorse, she said, had seized her. She had gone, in spite of her disgust, to several houses which she found open. There were worse cottages there than even her father’s; some tradesmen in a neighbouring town had been allowed to run up a set of rack rent hovels. — Another shudder seized her when she spoke of them; and from that point in her story all was fitful, broken, like the images of a hideous dream. ‘Every instant those foul memories were defiling her nostrils. A horrible loathing had taken possession of her, recurring from time to time, till it ended in delirium and fever. A scent-fiend was haunting her night and day,’ she said. ‘And now the curse of the Lavingtons had truly come upon her. To perish by the people whom they made. Their neglect, cupidity, oppression, are avenged on me! Why not? Have I not wantoned in down and perfumes, while they, by whose labour my luxuries were bought, were pining among scents and sounds — one day of which would have driven me mad! And then they wonder why men turn Chartists! There are those horrible scents again! Save me from them! Lancelot — darling! Take me to the fresh air! I choke! I am festering away! The Nun-pool! Take all the water, every drop, and wash Ashy clean again! Make a great fountain in it — beautiful marble — to bubble and gurgle, and trickle and foam, for ever and ever, and wash away the sins of the Lavingtons, that the little rosy children may play round it, and the poor toil-bent woman may wash — and wash — and drink — Water! water! I am dying of thirst!’

He gave her water, and then she lay back and babbled about the Nun-pool sweeping ‘all the houses of Ashy into one beautiful palace, among great flower-gardens, where the school children will sit and sing such merry hymns, and never struggle with great pails of water up the hill of Ashy any more.’

‘You will do it! darling! Strong, wise, noble-hearted that you are! Why do you look at me? You will be rich some day. You will own land, for you are worthy to own it. Oh that I could give you Whitford! No! It was mine too long — therefore I die! because I— Lord Jesus! have I not repented of my sin?’

Then she grew calm once more. A soft smile crept over her face, as it grew sharper and paler every moment. Faintly she sank back on the pillows, and faintly whispered to him to kneel and pray. He obeyed her mechanically. . . . ‘No — not for me, for them — for them, and for yourself — that you may save them whom I never dreamt that I was bound to save!’

And he knelt and prayed . . . what, he alone and those who heard his prayer, can tell . . . .

 

When he lifted up his head at last, he saw that Argemone lay motionless. For a moment he thought she was dead, and frantically sprang to the bell. The family rushed in with the physician. She gave some faint token of life, but none of consciousness. The doctor sighed, and said that her end was near. Lancelot had known that all along.

‘I think, sir, you had better leave the room,’ said Mrs. Lavington; and followed him into the passage.

What she was about to say remained unspoken; for Lancelot seized her hand in spite of her, with frantic thanks for having allowed him this one interview, and entreaties that he might see her again, if but for one moment.

Mrs. Lavington, somewhat more softly than usual, said — ‘That the result of this visit had not been such as to make a second desirable — that she had no wish to disturb her daughter’s mind at such a moment with earthly regrets.’

‘Earthly regrets!’ How little she knew what had passed there! But if she had known, would she have been one whit softened? For, indeed, Argemone’s spirituality was not in her mother’s language. And yet the good woman had prayed, and prayed, and wept bitter tears, by her daughter’s bedside, day after day; but she had never heard her pronounce the talismanic formula of words, necessary in her eyes to ensure salvation; and so she was almost without hope for her. Oh, Bigotry! Devil, who turnest God’s love into man’s curse! are not human hearts hard and blind enough of themselves, without thy cursed help?

For one moment a storm of unutterable pride and rage convulsed Lancelot — the next instant love conquered; and the strong proud man threw himself on his knees at the feet of the woman he despised, and with wild sobs entreated for one moment more — one only!

At that instant a shriek from Honoria resounded from the sick chamber. Lancelot knew what it meant, and sprang up, as men do when shot through the heart. — In a moment he was himself again. A new life had begun for him — alone.

‘You will not need to grant my prayer, madam,’ he said, calmly: ‘Argemone is dead.’

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44