When the verdict was given, Caldigate was at once marched round into the dock, having hitherto been allowed to sit in front of the dock between Mr. Seely and his father. But, standing in the dock, he heard the sentence pronounced upon him. ‘I never married the woman, my lord,’ he said, in a loud voice. But what he said could be of no avail. And then men looked at him as he disappeared with the jailers down the steps leading to regions below, and away to his prison, and they knew that he would no more be seen or heard of for two years. He had vanished. But there was the lady who was not his wife out at Folking — the lady whom the jury had declared not to be his wife. What would become of her?
There was an old gentleman there in the court who had known Mr. Caldigate for many years — one Mr. Ryder, who had been himself a practising barrister but had now retired. In those days they seldom saw each other; but, nevertheless, they were friends. ‘Caldigate,’ he said, ‘you had better let her go back to her own people.’
‘She shall stay with me,’ he replied.
‘Better not. Believe me, she had better not. If so, how will it be with her when he is released? The two years will soon go by, and then she will be in his house. If that woman should die, he might marry her — but till then she had better be with her own people.’
‘She shall stay with me,’ the old man said again, repeating the words angrily, and shaking his head. He was so stunned by the blow that he could not argue the matter, but he knew that he had made the promise, and that he was resolved to abide by it.
She had better go back to her own people! All the world was saying it. She had no husband now. Everybody would respect her misfortune. Everybody would acknowledge her innocence. All would sympathise with her. All would love her. But she must go back to her own people. There was not a dissentient voice. ‘Of course she must go back to you now,’ Nicholas Bolton said to her father, and Nicholas Bolton seldom interfered in anything. ‘The poor lady will of course be restored to her family,’ the judge had said in private to his marshal, and the marshal had of course made known what the judge had said. On the next morning there came a letter from William Bolton to Robert. ‘Of course Hester must come back now. Nothing else is possible.’ Everybody decided that she must come back. It was a matter which admitted of no doubt. But how was she to be brought to Chesterton?
None of them who decided with so much confidence as to her future, understood her ideas of her position as a wife. ‘I am bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh,’ she said to herself, ‘made so by a sacrament which no jury can touch. What matters what the people say? They may make me more unhappy than I am. They may kill me by their cruelty. But they cannot make me believe myself not to be his wife. And while I am his wife, I will obey him, and him only.’
What she called ‘their cruelty’ manifested itself very soon. The first person who came to her was Mrs. Robert Bolton, and her visit was made on the day after the verdict. When Hester sent down word begging to be permitted in her misery to decline to see even her sister-in-law, Mrs. Robert sent her up a word or two written in pencil —‘My darling, whom have you nearer? Who loves you better than I?’ Then the wretched one gave way, and allowed her brother’s wife to be brought to her. She was already dressed from head to foot in black, and her baby was with her.
The arguments which Mrs. Robert Bolton used need not be repeated, but it may be said that the words she used were so tender, and that they were urged with so much love, so much sympathy, and so much personal approval, that Hester’s heart was touched. ‘But he is my husband,’ Hester said. ‘The judge cannot alter it; he is my husband.’
‘I will not say a word to the contrary. But the law has separated you, and you should obey the law. You should not even eat his bread now, because — because ——. Oh, Hester, you understand.’
‘I do understand,’ she said, rising to her feet in her energy, ‘and I will eat his bread though it be hard, and I will drink of his cup though it be bitter. His bread and his cup shall be mine, and none other shall be mine. I do understand. I know that these wicked people have blasted my life. I know that I can be nothing to him now. But his child shall never be made to think that his mother had condemned his father. Yes, Margaret,’ she said again, ‘I do love you, and I do trust you, and I know that you love me. But you do not love him; you do not believe in him. If they came to you and took Robert away, would you go and live with other people? I do love papa and mamma. But this is his house, and he bids me stay here. The very clothes which I wear are his clothes I am his; and though they were to cut me apart from him, still I should belong to him. No — I will not go to mamma. Of course I have forgiven her, because she meant it for the best; but I will never go back to Chesterton.’
Then there came letters from the mother, one letter hot upon the other, all appealing to those texts in Scripture by which the laws of nations are supposed to be supported. ‘Give unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.’ It was for the law to declare who were and who were not man and wife, and in this matter the law had declared. After this how could she doubt? Or how could she hesitate as to tearing herself away from the belongings of the man who certainly was not her husband? And there were dreadful words in these letters which added much to the agony of her who received them — words which were used in order that their strength might prevail. But they had no strength to convert, though they had strength to afflict. Then Mrs. Bolton, who in her anxiety was ready to submit herself to any personal discomfort, prepared to go to Folking. But Hester sent back word that, in her present condition, she would see nobody — not even her mother.
But it was not only from the family of the Boltons that these applications and entreaties came. Even Mr. Seely took upon himself to tell Mr. Caldigate that under existing circumstances Hester should not be detained at Folking.
‘I do not know that either she or I want advice in the matter,’ Mr. Caldigate replied. But as a stone will be worn hollow in time by the droppings of many waters, so was it thought that if all Cambridge would continue firm in its purpose, then this stone might at last be made to yield. The world was so anxious that it resolved among itself that it would submit to any amount of snubbing in carrying out its object. Even the mayor wrote. ‘Dear Mr. Caldigate greatly as I object to all interference in families, I think myself bound to appeal to you as to the unfortunate condition of that young lady from Chesterton.’ Then followed all the arguments, and some of the texts — both of which were gradually becoming hackneyed in the matter. Mr. Caldigate’s answer to this was very characteristic: ‘Dear Mr. Mayor, if you have an objection to interfere in families, why do you do it?’ The mayor took the rebuke with placid good-humour, feeling that his little drop might also have done something towards hollowing the stone.
But of all the counsellors, perhaps Mr. Smirkie was the most zealous and the most trusting. He felt himself to be bound in a peculiar manner to Folking — by double ties. Was not the clergyman of the parish the brother of his dear departed one? And with whom better could he hold sweet counsel? And then that second dear one, who had just been vouchsafed to him — had she not as it were by a miracle been rescued from the fate into which the other poor lady had fallen, and obtained her present thoroughly satisfactory position? Mr. Smirkie was a clergyman who understood it to be his duty to be urgent for the good cause, in season and out of season, and who always did his duty. So he travelled over to Utterden and discussed the matter at great length with Mr. Bromley. ‘I do believe in my heart,’ said Mr. Bromley, ‘that the verdict is wrong.’ But Mr. Smirkie, with much eloquence, averred that that had nothing to do with the question. Mr. Bromley opened his eyes very wide. ‘Nothing at all,’ said Mr. Smirkie. ‘It is the verdict of the jury, confirmed by the judge, and the verdict itself dissolves the marriage. Whether the verdict be wrong or right, that marriage ceremony is null and void. They are not man and wife; — not now, even if they ever were. Of course you are aware of that.’
Mr. Smirkie was altogether wrong in his law. Such men generally are. Mr. Bromley in vain endeavoured to point out to him that the verdict could have no such power as was here claimed for it, and that if any claim was to be brought up hereafter as to the legitimacy of the child, the fact of the verdict could only be used as evidence, and that that evidence would or would not be regarded as true by another jury, according to the views which that other jury might take. Mr. Smirkie would only repeat his statements with increased solemnity — ‘That marriage is no marriage. That poor lady is not Mrs. John Caldigate. She is Miss Hester Bolton, and, therefore, every breath of air which she draws under that roof is a sin.’ As he said this out upon the dike-side he looked about him with manifest regret that he had no other audience than his brother-in-law.
And at last, after much persevering assiduity, Mr. Smirkie succeeded in reaching Mr. Caldigate himself, and expressed himself with boldness. He was a man who had at any rate the courage of his opinions. ‘You have to think of her future life in this world and in the next,’ he said. ‘And in the next,’ he repeated with emphasis, when Mr. Caldigate paused.
‘As to what will affect her happiness in this world, sir,’ said the old man very gravely, ‘I think you can hardly be a judge.’
‘Good repute,’ suggested the clergyman.
‘Has she done anything that ought to lessen the fair fame of a woman in the estimation of other women? And as to the next world, in the rewards and punishments of which you presume it to be your peculiar duty to deal, has she done anything which you think will subject her to the special wrath of an offended Deity?’ This question he asked with a vehemence of voice which astounded his companion. ‘She has loved her husband with a peculiar love,’ he continued. ‘She has believed herself to be joined to him by ties which you shall call romantic, if you will — superstitious, if you will.’
‘I hope not — I hope not,’ said Mr. Smirkie, holding up both his hands, not at all understanding the old man’s meaning, but intending to express horror at ‘superstition,’ which he supposed to be a peculiar attribute of the Roman Catholic branch of the Christian Church. ‘Not that I hope.’
‘I cannot fathom, and you, apparently, cannot at all understand, her idea of the sanctity of the marriage vow. But if you knew anything about her, I think you would refrain from threatening her with divine wrath; and as you know nothing about her, I regard such threats, coming from you, as impertinent unmanly, inhuman, and blasphemous.’ Mr. Caldigate had commenced this conversation, though vehemently, still in so argumentative a manner, and in his allusions to the lady’s romantic and superstitious ideas had seemed to yield so much, that the terrible vigour of his last words struck the poor clergyman almost to the ground. One epithet came out after another, very clearly spoken, with a pause between each of them; and the speaker, as he uttered them, looked his victim close in the face. Then he walked slowly away, leaving Mr. Smirkie fixed to the ground. What had he done? He had simply made a gentle allusion to the next world, as, surely, it was his duty to do. Whether this old pagan did or did not believe in a next world himself, he must at any rate be aware that it is the peculiar business of a clergyman to make such references. As to ‘impertinent’ and ‘unmanly,’ he would let them go by. He was, he conceived, bound by his calling to be what people called impertinent, and manliness had nothing to do with him. But ‘inhuman’ and blasphemous!’ Why had he come all the way over from Plum-cum-Pippins, at considerable personal expense, except in furtherance of that highest humanity which concerns itself with eternity? And as for blasphemy, it might, he thought, as well be said that he was blasphemous whenever he read the Bible aloud to his flock! His first idea was to write an exhaustive letter on the subject to Mr. Caldigate, in which he would invite that gentleman to recall the offensive words. But as he drove his gig into the parsonage yard at Plum-cum-Pippins, he made up his mind that this, too, was among the things which a Christian minister should bear with patience.
But the dropping water always does hollow the stone — hollow it a little though the impression may not be visible to the naked eye. Even when rising in his wrath, Mr. Caldigate had crushed the clergyman by the violence of his language — having been excited to anger chiefly by the thick-headedness of the man in not having understood the rebuke intended to be conveyed by his earlier and gentler words — even when leaving the man, with a full conviction that the man was crushed, the old Squire was aware that he, the stone, was being gradually hollowed. Hester was now very dear to him. From the first she had suited his ideas of a wife for his son. And her constancy in her misery had wound itself into his heart. He quite understood that her welfare should now be his great care. There was no one else from whom she would listen to a word of advice. From her husband, whose slightest word would have been a law to her, no word could now come. From her own family she was entirely estranged, having been taught to regard them simply as enemies in this matter. She loved her mother; but in this matter her mother was her declared enemy. His voice, and his voice alone, could now reach her ears. As to that great hereafter to which the clergyman had so flippantly alluded, he was content to leave that to herself. Much as he differed from her as to details of a creed, he felt sure that she was safe there. To his thinking, she was the purest human being that had ever come beneath his notice. Whatever portion of bliss there may be for mankind in a life after this life, the fullest portion of that bliss would be hers, whether by reason of her creed or in spite of it. Accustomed to think much of things, it was thus that he thought of her in reference to the world to come. But as to this world, he was not quite so sure. If she could die and have that other bliss at once, that would be best — only for the child, only for the child! But he did doubt. Would it do for her to ignore that verdict altogether, when his son should be released from jail, and be to him as though there had been no verdict? Would not the finger of scorn be pointed at her; — and, as he thought of it — possibly at future children? Might it not be better for her to bow to the cruelty of Fate, and consent to be apart from him at any rate while that woman should be alive? And again, if such would be better, then was it not clear that no time should be lost in beginning that new life? If at last it should be ruled that she must go back to her mother, it would certainly be well that she should do so now, at once, so that people might know that she had yielded to the verdict. In this way the stone was hollowed — though the hollowing had not been made visible to the naked eye of Mr. Smirkie.
He was a man whose conscience did not easily let him rest when he believed that a duty was incumbent on him. It was his duty now, he thought, not to bid her go, not to advise her to go — but to put before her what reasons there might be for her going.
‘I am telling you,’ he said, ‘what other people say.’
‘I do not regard what other people say.’
‘That might be possible for a man, Hester, but a woman has to regard what the world says. You are young, and may have a long life before you. We cannot hide from ourselves the fact that a most terrible misfortune has fallen upon you, altogether undeserved but very grievous.’
‘God, when he gave me my husband,’ she replied, ‘did me more good than any man can do me harm by taking him away. I never cease to tell myself that the blessing is greater than the misfortune.’
‘But, my dearest ——’
‘I know it all, father. I know what you would tell me. If I live here after he comes out of prison people will say that I am his mistress.’
‘Not that, not that,’ he cried, unable to bear the contumely of the word, even from her lips.
‘Yes, father; that is what you mean. That is what they all mean. That is what mamma means, and Margaret. Let them call me what they will. It is not what they call me, but what I am. It is bad for a woman to have evil said of her, but it is worse for her to do evil. It is your house, and you, of course, can bid me go.’
‘I will never do that.’
‘But unless I am turned out homeless on to the roads, I will stay here where he left me. I have only one sure way of doing right, and that is to obey him as closely as I can. He cannot order me now, but he has left his orders. He has told me to remain under this roof, and to call myself by his name, and in no way to derogate from my own honour as his wife. By God’s help I will do as he bids me. Nothing that any of them can say shall turn me an inch from the way he has pointed out. You are good to me.’
‘I will try to be good to you.’
‘You are so good to me that I can hardly understand your goodness. Trusting to that, I will wait here till he shall come again and tell me where and how I am to live.’
After that the old Squire made no further attempt in the same direction, finding that no slightest hollow had been made on that other stone.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01