Her husband was at hand—that is to say, under the same roof, and at that moment in the room in which the blind woman was now sitting, bleeding from her head and hand, and smiling as she talked, with the false light of a malignant irony.
“So, husband and wife are met again! And what have you to say after so long a time?”
“I’ve nothing to say. Let my deeds speak. I’ve given you year by year fully half my income.”
She laughed scornfully, and exclaimed merely—
“Miserable pittance it is, but the more miserable, the harder the sacrifice for me. I don’t say I have been able to do much; but I have done more than my means warrant, and I don’t understand what you propose to yourself by laying yourself out to torment and embarrass me. What the devil do you follow me about for? Do you think I’m fool enough to be bullied?”
“A fine question from Charles Vairfield of Wyvern to his wife!” she observed with a pallid simper.
“Wife and husband are terms very easily pronounced,” said he.
“And relations very easily made,” she rejoined.
He was leaning with his shoulder against the high mantelpiece, and looking upon her with a countenance in which you might have seen disdain and fear mingling with something of compunction.
“Relations very easily made, and still more easily affected,” he replied. “Come, Bertha, there is no use in quarrelling over points of law. Past is past, as Leonora says. If I have wronged you in anything I am sorry. I’ve tried to make amends; and though many a fellow would have been tired out long ago, I continue to give you proofs that I am not.”
“That is a sort of benevolence,” she said, in her own language, “which may as well be voluntary, for, if it be not, the magistrates will compel it.”
“The magistrates are neither fools nor tyrants. You’ll make nothing of the magistrates. You have no rights, and you know it.”
“An odd country where a wife has no rights.”
“Come, Bertha, there is no use in picking a quarrel. While you take me quietly you have your share, and a good deal more. You used to be reasonable.”
“A reasonable wife, I suppose, gives up her position, her character, her prospects, whenever it answers her husband to sacrifice these trifles for his villainous pleasures. Your English wives must be meek souls indeed if they like it. I don’t hear they are such lambs though.”
“I’m not going to argue law points, as I said before. Lawyers are the proper persons to do that. You used to be reasonable. Bertha—where’s the good in pushing things to extremes?”
“What a gentle creature you are,” she laughed, “and how persuasive!”
“I’m a quiet fellow enough, I believe, as men go, but I’m not persuasive, and I know it. I wish I were.”
“Those whom you have persuaded once are not likely to be persuaded again. Your persuasions are not always lucky. Are they?”
“You want to quarrel about everything. You want to leave no possible point of agreement.”
“Things are at a bad pass when husband and wife are so.”
Charles looked at her angrily for a moment, and then down to the floor, and he whistled a few bars of a tune.
“What do you whistle for?” she demanded.
“Come, Bertha, don’t be foolish.”
“You were once a gentleman. It is a blackguard who whistles in reply to a lady’s words,” she said, on a sudden stretching out her hand tremulously, as if in search of some one to grasp.
“Well, don’t mind. Stick to one thing at a time. For God’s sake say what you want, and have done with it.”
“You must acknowledge me before the world for your wife,” she answered with resolute serenity, and raising her face, and shutting her mouth she sniffed defiantly through her distended nostrils.
“Come, come, Bertha, what good on earth could come of that?”
“Little to you, perhaps.”
“And none to you.”
She laughed savagely. “That lie won’t do.”
“Bertha, Bertha, we may hate one another if you will. But is it not as well to try whether we can agree upon anything. Let us just for the present talk intelligibly.”
“You tried to murder me, you arch-villain.”
“Nonsense,” said he, turning pale, “how can you talk so—how can you? Could I help interposing? You may well be thankful that I did.”
“You tried to murder me,” she screamed.
“You know that’s false. I took the knife from your hand, and by doing so I saved two lives. It was you—not I— who hurt your hand.”
“You villain, you damned villain, I wish I could kill you dead.”
“All the worse for you. Bertha.”
“I wish you were dead and cold in your bed, and my hand on your face to be sure of it.”
“Now you’re growing angry again. I thought we had done with storm and hysterics for a little, and could talk, and perhaps agree upon something, or at all events not waste our few minutes in violence.”
“Violence!—you wretch, who began it?”
“What can you mean, Bertha?”
“You’ve married that woman. I know it all—I your lawful wife living. I’ll have you transported, double-dyed villain.”
“Where’s the good of screaming all this at the top of your voice?” he said, at last growing angry. “You wish you could kill me? I almost wish you could. I’ve been only too good to you, and allowed you to trouble me too long.”
“Ha, ha!—you’d like to put me out of the way?”
“You’ll do that for yourself. Can’t you wait, can’t you listen, can’t you have common reason, just for one moment? What do you want, what do you wish? Do you want every farthing I possess on earth, and to leave me nothing?”
“I’m your wife, and I’ll have my rights.”
“Now listen to me, that’s a question I need not discuss, because you already know what I believe on the subject.”
“You know what your brother Harry thinks.”
“I know what it is his interest to think.”
“You daren’t say that if he were here, you coward.”
“And I don’t care a farthing what he thinks.”
“Ha, ha, ha!”
“But if it had been fifty times over, what it never was, a marriage, your own conduct, long ago, would have dissolved it.”
“And you allow you have married that woman?”
“I shan’t talk to you about it; how I shall act, or may act, or have acted is my own affair, and rely upon it I’ll do nothing on the assumption that T ever was married to you.”
Up stood the tall woman, with hands extended toward him, wide open, with a slightly groping motion as if opening a curtain; not a word did she say, but her sightless eyes, which stared full at him, were quivering with that nervous tremor which is so unpleasant to see.
She drew breath two or three times at intervals, long and deep, almost a sob, and then without speaking or moving more she sat down, looking awfully white and wicked.
For a time the old soldier had lost the thread of her discourse. Charles heard a step not very far off. He thought his unreasonable Bertha was about to have a fit, and opening the door he called lustily to Mildred.
It was Mrs. Tarnley.
“Will you get her some water, or whatever she ought to have, I think she is ill, and pray be quick.”
With a dark prying look Mildred glanced from one to the other.
“It’s in a mad-house and not here the like of her should be, wi’ them fits and frenzies,” she muttered as she applied herself to the resuscitation of the Dutchwoman.
On her toilet was a little group of bottles labelled “Sal-volatile,” “Asafoetida,” “Vale-nan.
“I don’t know which is the right one, but this can’t be far wrong,” she remarked, selecting the sal-volatile, and dropping some into the water.
“La! so it was a sort o’ fit. See how stiff she was. Lor’ bless us, I do wish she was under a mad doctor. See how her feet’s stuck out, and her thumbs tight shut in her fists, and her teeth set,” and old Mildred applied the sal-volatile phial to the patient’s nostrils, and gradually got her into a drowsy, yawning state, in which she seemed to care and comprehend little or nothing of where she was or what had befallen her.
“Tell her I stayed till I saw her better, if she asks, and that I’m coming back again. She says she is hurt.”
“So much the better,” said Mildred; “that will keep her from prowling about the house like a cat or a ghost, as she did, all night, and no good came of it.”
“And will you look to her wrist: she cut it last night, and it is very clumsily tied up, and I’ll come again, tell her.”
So, with a bewildered brain and a dire load at his heart, he left the room.
Where was Alice, he thought. He went downstairs and up again by the back stair-case to their room, and there found the wreck and disorder of the odious scene he had witnessed, still undisturbed, and looking somehow more shocking in the sober light of morning.
From this sickening record of the occurrences of last night he turned for a moment to the window, and looked out on the tranquil and sylvan solitudes, and then back again upon the disorder which had so nearly marked a scene of murder.
“How do I keep my reason?” thought he; “is there in England so miserable a man? Why should not I end it?”
Between the room where he stood and the angle of that bedroom in which at that moment was the wretch who agitated every hour of his existence with dismay, there intervened but eight-and-twenty feet, in that polyhedric and irregular old house. If he had but one tithe of her wickedness he had but to take up that poker, strike through, and brain her as she sat there.
Why was he not a little more or a little less wicked? If the latter, he might never have been in his present fix. If the other, he might find a short way out of the thicket—“hew his way out with a bloody axe”— and none but those whose secrecy he might rely on be the wiser!
Avaunt, horrible shadows! Such beckoning phantoms from the abyss were not tempters, but simply terrors. No, he was far more likely to load a pistol, put the muzzle in his mouth, and blow his harrassed brains out.
Last updated Monday, March 30, 2015 at 21:19