Charles rode his horse slowly homeward. The moon got up before he reached the wild expanse of Cressley Common, a wide sea of undulating heath, with here and there a grey stone peeping above its surface in the moon-light like a distant sail.
Charles was feverish—worn out in body and mind—literally. Some men more than others are framed to endure misery, and live on, and on, and on in despair. Is this melancholy strength better, or the weakness that faints under the first strain of the rack? Happy that at the longest it cannot be for very long—happy that “man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live,” seeing that he is “full of misery.”
Charles was conscious only of extreme fatigue; that for days he had eaten little and rested little, and that his short snatches of sleep, harassed by the repetition of his waking calculations and horrors, tired rather than refreshed him.
When fever is brewing, just as electric lights glimmer from the sullen mask of cloud on the eve of a storm, there come sometimes odd flickerings that seem to mock and warn.
Every overworked man, who has been overtaken by fever in the midst of his toil and complications, knows well the kind of tricks his brain has played him on the verge of that chaos.
Charles put his hand to his breast, and felt in his pocket for a letter, the appearance of which was sharp and clear on his retina as if he had seen it but a moment before.
“What have I done with it?” he asked himself—“the letter Hincks gave me?”
He searched his pockets for it, a letter of which this picture was so bright—purely imaginary! He was going to turn about and search the track he had traversed for it; but he bethought him, “To whom was the letter written?” No answer could he find. “To whom?” To no one—nothing—an imagination. Conscious of a sudden, he was scared.
“I want a good rest—I want some sleep—waking dreams. This is the way fellows go mad. What the devil can have put it into my head?”
Now rose before him the tall trees that gather as you approach the vale of Carwell, and soon the steep gables and chimneys of the Grange glimmered white among their boughs.
There in his mind, as unaccountably, was the fancy that he had met and spoken with his father, old Squire Harry, at the Catstone, as he crossed the moor.
“I’ll give his message—yes, I’ll give your message.”
And he thought what possessed him to come out without his hat, and he looked whiter than ever.
And then he thought, “What brought him there?”
And then, “What was his message?”
Again a shock, a chasm—his brain had mocked him.
Dreadful when that potent servant begins to mutiny, and instead of honest work for its master finds pastime for itself in fearful sport.
“My God! what am I thinking of?” he said, with a kind of chill, looking back over his shoulder.
His tired horse was plucking a mouthful of grass that grew at the foot of a tree.
“We are both used up,” he said, letting his horse, at a quicker pace, pursue its homeward path. “Poor fellow, you are tired as well as I. I’ll be all right, I dare say, in the morning if I could only sleep. Something wrong—something a little wrong—that sleep will cure—all right tomorrow.”
He looked up as he passed toward the windows of his and Alice’s room. When he was out a piece of the shutter was always open. But if so tonight there was no light in the room, and with a shock and a dreadful imperfection of recollection, the scene which occurred on the night past returned.
“Yes, my God! so it was,” he said, as he stopped at the yard gate. “Alice—I forget—did I see Alice after that, did I—did they tell me—what is it?”
He dismounted, and felt as if he were going to faint. His finger was on the latch, but he had not courage to raise it. Vain was his effort to remember. Painted in hues of light was that dreadful crisis before his eyes, but how had it ended? Was he going quite mad?”
“My God help me,” he muttered again and again. “Is there anything bad. I can’t recall it. Is there anything very bad?”
“Open the door, it is he, I’m sure, I heard the horse,” cried the clear voice of Alice from within.
“Yes, I, it’s I,” he cried in a strange rapture.
And in another moment the door was open, and Charles had clasped his wife to his heart.
“Darling, darling, I’m so glad. You’re quite well?” he almost sobbed.
“Oh, Ry, my own, my own husband, my Ry, he’s safe, he’s quite well. Come in. Thank God, he’s back again with his poor little wife, and oh, darling, we’ll never part again. Come in, come in, my darling.”
Old Mildred secured the door, and Tom took the horse round to the stable, and as she held her husband clasped in her arms, tears, long denied to her, came to her relief, and she wept long and convulsingly.
“Oh, Ry, it has been such a dreadful time; but you’re safe, aren’t you?”
“Quite. Oh! yes, quite darling—very well.”
“But, oh, Ry, you look so tired. You’re not ill, are you, darling?”
“Not ill, only tired. Nothing, not much, tired and stupid, want of rest.”
“You must have some wine, you look so very ill.”
“Well, yes, I’m tired. Thanks, Mildred, that will do,” and he drank the glass of sherry she gave him.
“A drop more?” inquired old Mildred, holding the decanter stooped over his glass.
“No, thanks, no, I—it tastes oddly—or perhaps I’m not quite well after all.”
Charles now felt his mind clear again, and his retrospect was uncrossed by those spectral illusions of the memory that seem to threaten the brain with subjugation.
Better the finger of death than of madness should touch his brain, perhaps. His love for his wife, not dethroned, only in abeyance, was restored. Such dialogues as theirs are little interesting to any but the interlocutors.
With their fear and pain, agitated, troubled, there is love in their words. Those words, then, though in him, troubled with inward upbraidings, in her with secret fears and cares, are precious. There may not be many more between them.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57