Was It Right to Forgive? A Domestic Romance
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“I am sure, Rose, there are plenty of people in the best society who have been talked about in far worse fashion than you have.”
“That is true enough; but society, now and then, gets very moral and thinks it necessary to have a scapegoat whom it can punish for all the rest. At present it is laying its sins on my head, and driving me out to the wilderness; though it has plenty inside its high fence just as bad as I am, mamma.” Then she was suddenly quiet, as if remembering. “Mamma, when I was in London I saw a picture of myself.” Mrs. Filmer looked at her curiously and inquiringly, and she went on, with a kind of desperate indignation:
“It was in a gallery. It was called The Sacrificial Goat. The poor tormented creature was plodding with weary feet through the quaking wilderness, under the crimson rocks of Edom, and by the shores of the Dead Sea. I could not keep away from that picture. I felt as if I could do anything to give the fainting animal a drink of cold water. No one feels that about me” – and 275 she flung herself among the satin cushions of her sofa and began to sob like a lost child.
“Oh, Rose! Rose! How can you say so? What would I not do to make you happy?”
“Leave me alone, dear mamma. Do not be miserable about me. I am not worth worrying over; and I do not care the snap of my fingers for your society! Only, do not tell papa anything against his little Rose. He will never find out I am sorrowful and despised unless you say it in his very ears.”
“Rose, go and speak to your father. He is a wise man; and he has a heart, my child.”
“Yes, as good a heart as can possibly be made out of brains. But I do not want to trouble papa; and I do want him to believe I am all that is lovely and admirable. You never told him about Duval, did you?”
“No. Why should I?”
“And what have you said about Antony?”
“What you told me to say – that gold had been found on his place, and he had to look after things. It quite pleased him.”
“Will Harry say anything – wrong?”
“Nothing at all. I have spoken to Harry.”
“Poor dear papa!”
“Oh, Rose! My Rose!”
“And poor dear mamma, too!”
“If you would only write one word to Antony.”
“I will not.”
This conversation indicated the way Rose was going to take, and she made haste to carry out her determination. There is always a brilliant riffraff of good society who are eager for pleasure – so called – and ambitious to achieve the trumpery distinction of ‘smartness’ – dissipated, devilish men, and rapid, 276 realistic women; and with this class Rose found it easy to fill her fine rooms. It was to outward appearance a highly desirable set, gorgeously dressed, and having all the insignia of the uppermost class. There was no sign of anything but the most exact virtue at the dinner-table, and the earlier dances were beautiful and proper; but as the evenings wore on, and the wines and ices began to influence conduct, the tone fell lower; men and women talked louder, and danced more recklessly; and at the last hour it was necessary to be a little blind and a little deaf.
But it is the eternal law, that where sin is, sorrow shall answer it; and in all this tumult and riot of feasting and dancing, Rose was sad and disconsolate.It was not alone that she was aware of her distinct loss of social estimation – aware that old friends shirked speaking to her if they could; and that even her mother lost patience with her vagaries and imprudences – it was not even the total silence of her husband, and the appalling sense of loneliness that chilled her whole life – there was a want greater than these, for it is not by bread alone we live; there is a certain approval of conscience necessary even to our physical existence, and without its all-pervading cement, this wondrous union of self is not held healthily together. Rose had not this blessed approval; and the flatteries of the crowd she feasted did not make up for the sweet content that follows duty accomplished and love fulfilled.
She had taken into her confidence a young girl called Ida Stirling. She was exceedingly pretty and witty and sympathetic, and quite inclined to share in all the mitigations of Rose’s private hours. They had luxurious little meals together, and they told each other their secrets as they ate and drank. In this way 277 Rose betrayed herself; she gave to a stranger a confidence she had not given as fully to her mother, and put her heart into her hands, either to comfort or to despise. For a little while, the two women were inseparable; and on Rose’s side, at least, there was nothing hidden from her companion.
All January and February passed in this constant succession of public and private entertaining; and the “affairs” began to pall, even upon those who had nothing to do but enjoy them. The Van Hoosen household grew notorious for its extravagance and its disorder, and an indefinable aura of contempt and indifference began to pervade those who came together in Rose’s fine reception rooms. They no longer respected their hostess, they were often barely civil to her; and yet they were only fulfilling that condition Rose herself had anticipated – allowing her to find them a good floor, good music, and wines and ices for their refreshment. During February she suspected this feeling, but Ida Stirling, with many assurances, had pacified her doubts. A little later, however, she realized her position thoroughly; and she smarted under the sense of the contemptuous acceptance of her hospitality.
“I shall put a stop to the whole thing,” she said to herself, one morning in March. “I shall not stay in New York until Easter. I shall ask Ida to go with me to Europe, and we will travel quietly with a maid and a courier.” She permitted this idea to take possession of her until she suddenly remembered that even Ida had not appeared to be as fond of her society as she used to be. With a profusion of apologies and regrets, she had refused several invitations to shop and drive, and stay all night with her friend. Perhaps she would 278 not go to Europe. In such case, Rose resolved to travel with her maid only.
Absorbed in this new idea, she went out one day to attend to some shopping necessary for her plan. It was a lovely afternoon, full of sunshine, and a soft, fresh breeze. The windows were gay with spring fashions and preparations for Easter, and Broadway was crowded with well-dressed men and women, happy in the airs of spring, and in the sense of their own beauty or elegance. When she came out of Tiffany’s, the temptation to join in this pleasant promenade was so great that she sent her carriage forward to Vantine’s, and resolved to walk the intermediate distance. The sense of resurrection and restoration was so uplifting, the cheerfulness, the smiles, the noise of traffic and the murmur of humanity were altogether so restorative to her jaded heart that Rose felt a thrill of genuine natural happiness. She thought of the fresh sea and the queer, splendid old towns beyond it, and she hoped Ida would be willing to start by the first possible steamer.
To such thoughts she stepped brightly forward, her garments fluttering in the wind, and a large bunch of daffodils in her hands. As she approached Seventeenth Street, she felt a sudden impulse to answer an unknown gaze; and she let her eyes wander among the advancing crowd. In an instant they fell upon Ida Stirling and Mr. Duval. They were walking together, and their air was that of lovers; and Rose felt that they were talking about her. For a moment she was stunned; her soul was really knocked down, and her body felt unable to lift it. The next moment she stumbled on, with flaming cheeks, and ears so painfully alert that they heard every tone of the mocking 279 little laugh which saluted her in the passing. Ida was looking into Duval’s face, and affected not to see Rose; but Duval stared insolently at her, without a token of recognition. She had herself, in the momentary pause, made a faint inquisitive smile, a slight movement that she could not restrain, but which she instantly felt to be the most shameful wrong to herself. It was answered – if at all – by that mockery of a laugh which entered her ears like the point of a sword and reached her heart through them.
Blindly, breathing in short gasps, she reached her carriage; and with a great effort gave the order “home.” She was distracted. Her anger burned inward, set her blood on fire, and shook her like an earthquake. Her lover and her friend, both false! All her confidences betrayed! Her poor heart laid bare for their scorn and mirth! It was impossible to endure so abominable a wrong. She was struck dumb with it. She knew no words to express her distress. She could not rest a moment, sleep fled from her; her inner self was in a chaos of indescribable suffering.
In the morning she was physically ill; a great nausea, a burning fever, and a pain in every limb subdued her. All night her soul had seemed a substance made of fire; in the morning, it was dulled and numbed by her bodily agony; for pain is indeed perfect misery, and the very worst of mortal evils. Mrs. Filmer and a doctor were sent for; and Rose lay nearly two weeks, stunned and suffering from the soul-blow she had received. Much of the time she was hardly conscious of the present, moaning and fretful when awake, and when asleep lost in the unutterable desolation of dreams, full of portentous shapes and awful 280 suggestions. Her life had lost its balance, and she had lost her foothold on it in consequence.
“Am I very ill, mamma?” she asked mournfully, one midnight.
“Not very, my dear Rose. You are beginning to get better. The doctor thinks you have had a severe mental shock. What was it? Antony?”
“No; not Antony. Antony is not brutal. Am I strong enough to talk, mamma?”
“It may do you good to talk – to tell me what made you ill.”
“I met Ida Stirling and Mr. Duval walking together. They laughed in my face as they passed me. And I had told Ida everything – everything!”
“Do you mean about Antony?”
“Yes; and about that dreadful day when you all thought I intended to go to Cuba.”
“Rose, I never have understood that affair.”
“And yet, without understanding it, every one, even you, thought the very worst of me.”
“Then why did you not explain?”
“I don’t know. I was too angry. I felt wicked enough to let you all think whatever you chose. And then baby was dead, and Antony treated me as if I were her murderer.”
“You did not intend, however, to go to Cuba?”
“No more than you intended to go.”
“What took you to the steamer then?”
“Mr. Duval had some letters – foolish, imprudent letters – and I was miserable about them; because whenever I did not meet him, or send him money, he threatened to show them to Antony. He promised, as he was going to Cuba, to give them to me for $500. I had only three days to procure the money, and I did 281 not succeed in getting it until noon of the last day. Then I went to the Astor House, where Mr. Duval was waiting for me, and because I wanted to keep him in a good temper, I took lunch with him. He said he would give me the letters after lunch. I did not take but two glasses of wine, yet they made me feel strange, and when I was told that his luggage had all gone to the steamer, and that I must go there for the letters, I could not help crying. When Adriana spoke to me, I was begging for my letters, and he was urging me to go to Cuba with him. He wanted my money, mamma, and I knew it. He was cruel to me, and I had become afraid of him. While he was talking, I was listening for the bell to warn people ashore, and I should have fled at the first sound.”
“He might have prevented you, Rose. My dear, what danger you were in!”
“I thought of that. There were several passengers on deck, and the captain was not far away. I would have thrown myself into the water rather than have gone to Cuba with Mr. Duval.”
“Did you get the letters?”
“No. Yanna came interfering, and then Antony. I let them think what they liked. Duval said I intended to go with him. It was a lie, and he knew it; but Yanna and Antony seemed to enjoy believing it, and so I let them think me as wicked and cruel as they desired. Not one of you took the trouble to ask me a question.”
“We feared to wound your feelings, Rose, by alluding to what could not be undone. And you were fretting so about your child.”
“Not one of you noticed that I had taken no clothing, none of my jewelry, not a single article necessary 282 for comfort. Was it likely I would leave all my dresses and jewels behind me? If Mr. Duval thought I was going with him, was it likely he would have suffered me to forget them?”
“Why did you not tell me all this before, Rose?”
“I do not know ‘why,’ mamma. I enjoyed seeing Antony miserable. I enjoyed humbling Yanna’s pride. I used to laugh at the thought of Harry and her talking over my misconduct. A spirit I could not control took possession of me. I did not want to do wrong, but I liked people to think I did wrong. I suppose you cannot understand me, mamma?”
“Yes, I understand, Rose.”
“When I was quite alone, I used to cry bitterly about the sin of it; but all the same, as soon as Antony, or you, or Yanna, or any one that knew about Duval, came into my sight, I tried to shock them again.”
“You will do so no more, Rose?”
“The desire has gone from me. I do not even fear Mr. Duval now. He can send all the letters he has to Antony, if he wishes. I am naturally a coward, and cowardice made me sin many a time. If I had only been brave enough to tell Antony what the villain made me suffer, I need not have endured it. Antony is generosity. Duval is cruelty.”
This explanation gave Mrs. Filmer great relief, and doubtless it tended to Rose’s quick recovery. She no longer bore her burden alone, and her mother’s sympathy, like the pity of the Merciful One, was without reproach. But it was now that Rose began to realize for the first time that love teaches as the demon of Socrates taught – by the penalties exacted for errors. For every hour of her life she felt the loss of her husband’s 283 protecting care. Her sickness had compelled her to leave everything to servants; and the house was abandoned to their theft and riot. Waste, destruction, quarreling all day, and eating and drinking most of the night, were the household ordering. She found it difficult to get for her own wants the least attention; and the light, nourishing food she craved was prepared, if at all, in the most careless manner. Her orders were quarreled over, disputed, or neglected; and withal she had the knowledge that she must, for the time being, endure the shameful tyranny. But, oh, how every small wrong made her remember the almost omniscient love of her husband, and the involuntary and constant cry of her heart was, “If Antony were only here!”
Her loneliness, too, was great; she was unaccustomed to solitude, and she was too weak to bear the physical fatigue of much reading. So the hours and the days of her convalescence went very drearily onward. She could not look backward without weeping, and there was no hope in the future. Alas! alas! our worst wounds are those inflicted by our own hands; and Rose, musing mournfully on her sofa, knew well that no one had injured her half so cruelly as she had injured herself. With how many tears her poor eyes did penance! But they were a precious rain upon her parched soul; it was softened by them, and though she had as yet no clear conception of her relationship to God, as a wandering daughter, far from His presence – but never beyond His love – she had many moments of tender, vague mystery, in which, weeping and sorrowful, she was brought very close to Him. For it is often in the dry time, and the barren time, that God reaches out His hand, and puts into the heart the 284 hopeful resolve, “I will arise and go to my Father!” In some sense this was the cry that broke passionately from Rose’s lips on one night which had ended a day full to the brim of those small, shameful household annoyances, through which servants torture those whom they can torture.
“I will arise and go to my husband!” That was the first step on the right road, and the resolve sprang suddenly from a heart broken and wounded, and hungry and thirsty for help and sympathy.
“In Antony’s heart there is love and to spare,” she cried. “He would not suffer me to be tormented and neglected. He would put his strong arms round me, and the very south wind he would not let blow too rudely on my face. Oh, Antony! Antony! If you only knew how I long for you! How sorry I am for all the cruel words I said! How sorry I was even while saying them! I will go to Antony. I will tell him that I cannot forgive myself until he forgives me. I will tell him how truly I love him; how lonely and tired and sick and poor and wretched I am. He will forgive me. He will love me again. I shall begin to go now– at this very moment.”
She rose up with the words, and felt the strength of her resolve. She looked at her watch. It was not quite nine o’clock. She rang the bell and ordered her carriage. The man hesitated, but finally obeyed the order. She was driven directly to her father’s house. Mrs. Filmer had gone out with Harry and Adriana, but Mr. Filmer was in his study. He was amazed and terrified, when he saw Rose enter.
“My dear Rose! what are you doing here?” he cried. “You are ill, Rose.”
“Ill or well, father, I want you. Oh, I need you so 285 much!” and she covered her face with her hands, and wept with all her heart. “I have been ill, but you have never been to see me, father – did you not know how ill I was? Do you not care for me?” she sobbed.
Mr. Filmer pulled a chair to his side. “Come here, my girl,” he answered, “for I cannot come to you. Look at my bandaged foot, Rose. I have not stepped on it for a month.”
“Oh, father! I am so sorry for you – and for myself.”
“I fell, my dear – fell down those spiral stairs in the library, and sprained myself very badly. Did you imagine I had forgotten?”
“Mamma never told me – yes, I believe she did tell me – but I thought it was only a little hurt. I have been so selfishly miserable. And, oh, father! it is such a disappointment to me. I wanted you to take me to Antony.”
“That is folly, my child. Your husband is about his business. He will come home as soon as he can leave it; and you are not fit to travel.”
Then Rose remembered that her father had but a partial knowledge of the truth regarding her real position, and she hesitated. Lame and unable to help her, why should she make him unhappy? So she only said: “There is something a little wrong between Antony and me, and I want to talk to him. Letters always make trouble. I thought perhaps you might go with me; but you are lame – and busy, too, I see.”
“Unfortunately, I am lame at present; but if you are in any trouble, Rose, I am not busy. What is this to you?” he asked, lifting some manuscript and tossing it scornfully aside. “It is only my amusement; you are my heart, my honor, my duty! I would burn every 286 page of my book if by so doing I could bring you happiness, my child.”
“There is nothing to call for such a sacrifice, papa,” she said, while the grateful tears sprang to her eyes; “but somehow, I do not seem to have any friends but you and mamma; none, at least, from whom I can expect help.”
“In trouble, Rose, you may always go to God and to your father and mother for help. From them you cannot expect too much; and from men and women in general you cannot expect too little. Your mother will be home soon, so remain here to-night, and have a talk with her about this notion of going west to Antony. She will tell you that it is very foolish.”
“If I stay I must send home the carriage, and then no one knows what may happen if the house is without any one even to give an alarm. But I am glad to have seen you, papa. And it was good to hear you say you would burn your book for my sake. I feel ever so much better for having heard you say such splendid words.”
So Rose went home, without having made any advance towards her intention; but she was strengthened and comforted by her father’s love and trust.
And she said to herself, “Perhaps I had better not be rash. I will be still, and think over things.” Yet she was sensible of a singular impatience of delay. “Delay might mean so much. Her evil genius might have foreseen her effort, and resolved thus to defeat it. Harry might go with her. She might go by herself. Had she not contemplated a journey to Europe alone?” Until long after midnight she sat considering the details of her journey – the dress she ought to wear – the words she ought to say – and, alas! the possibilities of disappointment.
“No! there must be no delay,” she whispered, as at last, weary with thought, she laid her head on her pillow. “I will go to-morrow, or, at any rate, on the day following.” And with this determination, she fell asleep.
Just in the gray light before the dawning, she leaped from her bed like one pursued. She was drenched in the sweat of terror; the very sheets which had wrapped her were wet with the unhappy dew. To the window she ran, and threw it open, and leaned far out, and looked up and down the dim, silent street, sighing heavily, and wringing her hands like a child in terror, lost and perplexed. It was strange to see her walk round the room, touch the chairs, the ornaments, lift her garments, and finally go to the mirror and peer into it at her own white face.
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