“Is Mrs. Plowden at home?” said a clear voice, the well-remembered tones of which sent the blood to her head and then back to her heart with a rush.
“Oh! Wait here, flyman. Now, my good girl, I must ask you to give me your hand, for I am not in a condition to find my way about strange places.”
Another pause, and the drawing-room opened, and the maid came in, leading Ernest, who wore a curious, drawn look upon his face.
“How do you do?” she said, in a low voice, coming and taking him by the hand. “That will do, Jane.”
He did not speak till the door closed; he only looked at her with those searching blind eyes.
Thus they met again after many years.
She led him to a sofa, and he sat down.
“Do not leave go of my hand,” he said quickly; “I have not yet got used to talking to people in the dark.”
She sat down on the sofa beside him, feeling frightened and yet happy. For awhile they remained silent; apparently they could find nothing to say, and, after all, silence seemed most fitting. She had never thought to sit hand in hand with him again. She looked at him; there was no need to keep a guard over her loving glances, for he was blind. At length she broke the silence.
“Were you surprised to get my message?” she asked, gently.
“Yes; it was like getting a message from the dead. I never expected to see you again. I thought that you had quite passed out of my life.”
“So you had forgotten me?”
“Why do you say such a thing to me? You must know Eva, that it is impossible for me to forget you; I almost wish that it were possible. I meant that you had passed out of my outward life, for out of my mind you can never pass.”
Eva hung her head and was silent though his words sent a thrill of happiness through her. So she had not quite lost him after all.
“Listen, Eva,” Ernest went on, gathering himself together, and speaking sternly enough now, with a strange suppressed energy that frightened her. “How you came to do what you have done you best know.”
“It is done; do not let us speak of it. I was not altogether to blame,” she broke in.
“I was not going to speak of it. But I was going to say this, now while I have the chance, because time is short, and I think it right that you should know the truth. I was going to tell you first that for what you have done I freely forgive you.”
“It is,” he went on, not heeding her, “a question that you can settle with your conscience and your God. But I wish to tell you what it is that you have done. You have wrecked my life, and made it an unhappy thing; you have taken that from me which I can never have to give again; you have embittered my mind, and driven me to sins of which I should not otherwise have dreamed. I loved you, and you gave me proofs that I could not doubt that I had won your love. You let me love you. Then when the hour of trial came you deserted and morally destroyed me, and the great and holy affection that should have been the blessing of my life has become its curse.”
Eva covered her face with her hands and sat silent.
“You do not answer me, Eva,” he said presently, with a little laugh. “Perhaps you find what I have to say difficult to answer, or perhaps you think I am taking a liberty.”
“You are very hard,” she murmured.
“Had you not better wait till I have done before you call me hard? If I wished to be hard, I should tell you that I no longer cared for you, that my prevailing feeling towards you was one of contempt. It would, perhaps, mortify you to think that I had shaken off such heavy chains. But it is not the truth, Eva. I love you now, as I always have loved you, as I always shall love you. I hope for nothing, I ask for nothing; in this business it has always been my part to give, not to receive. I despise myself for it, but so it is.”
She laid her hand upon his shoulder. “Spare me, Ernest,” she whispered.
“I have very little more to say, only this: I believe all that I have given you has not been given uselessly. I believe that the love of the flesh will die with the flesh. But my love for you has been something more and higher than that, or how has it loved without hope, and in spite of its dishonour, through so many years? It is of the spirit, and I believe that its life will be like that of the spirit, unending, and that when this hateful existence is done with I shall in some way reap its fruits with you.”
“Why do you believe that, Ernest? It seems too happy to be true.”
“Why do I believe it? I cannot tell you. Perhaps it is nothing but the fantasy of a mind broken down with brooding on its grief. In trouble we grow towards the light—like a plant in the dark, you know. As a crushed flower smells sweet, so all that is most aspiring in human nature is called into life when God lays His heavy hand upon us. Heaven is sorrow’s sole ambition. No, Eva, I do not know why I believe it—certainly you have given me no grounds for faith—but I do believe it, and it comforts me. By the way, how did you know that I was here?”
“I passed you on the Hoe this morning, walking with Dorothy.”
Ernest started. “I felt you pass,” he said, “and asked Dorothy who it was. She said she did not know.”
“She knew, but I made a sign to her not to say.”
“Ernest, will you promise me something?” asked Eva, wildly.
“What is it?”
“Nothing. I have changed my mind—nothing at all!”
The promise that she was about to ask was that he would not marry Dorothy, but her better nature rose in rebellion against it. Then they talked awhile of Ernest’s life abroad.
“Well,” said Ernest, rising after a pause, “good-bye, Eva.”
“It is a very cruel world,” she murmured.
“Yes, it is cruel, but not more cruel than the rest.”
“It has been a happiness to see you, Ernest.”
He shrugged his shoulders as he answered. “Has it? For myself I am not sure if it has been a happiness or a misery. I must have a year or two of quiet and darkness to think it over before I make up my mind. Will you kindly ring the bell for the servant to take me away?”
Half unconsciously, she obeyed him. Then she came and took his hand, looking with all her eyes and all her soul into his face. It was fortunate that he could not see her.
“O Ernest, you are blind!” she said, scarcely knowing what she said.
He laughed—a hard little laugh. “Yes, Eva, I am blind now as you have been always.”
“Ernest! Ernest! how can I live without seeing you? I love you!” and she fell into his arms.
He kissed her once—twice, thrice, nor did he kiss alone. Then, he never knew how, he found the strength to put her from him. Perhaps it was because he heard the servant coming.
Next moment she came and led him away.
As soon as he was gone Eva flung herself down on the sofa and sobbed as though her heart would break.
When Dorothy saw a fresh-faced young officer, who had come up to see Ernest, mysteriously lead him aside, and whisper something in his ear which caused him to turn first red and then white, being a shrewd observer, she thought it curious. But when Ernest asked her to ring the bell and ordered a fly to be brought round at once, the idea of Eva at once flashed into her mind. She and no other must be at the bottom of this mystery. Presently the fly was announced, and Ernest went off without a word, leaving her to the tender mercies of the cherub, who was contemplating her with his round eye as he had contemplated Eva, and finding her also charming. It must be remembered that he had but just returned from South Africa, and was prepared, faute de mieux, to fall in love with an apple-woman. How much more, then, would he succumb to the charms of the stately Eva and the extremely fascinating Dorothy! It was some time before the latter could get rid of him and his eyeglass. On an ordinary occasion she would have been glad enough to entertain him, for Dorothy liked a little male society. Also the cherub, though he did look so painfully young, was not a bad fellow, and after all his whole soul was in his eyeglass, and his staring was meant to be complimentary. But just now she had a purpose in her mind, and was heartily glad when he departed to reflect over the rival attractions of the two charmers.
It was very evident to Dorothy, who was always strictly practical, that to keep Eva and Ernest in the same town was to hold dry tow to a lighted match over a barrel of gunpowder. She only hoped that he might come back now without having bred more trouble.
“Oh, what fools men are!” she said to herself, with a stamp; “a pretty face and a pair of bright eyes, and they count the world well lost for them. Bah! if it had been a plain woman who played Ernest that trick, would he be found dangling about after her now? Not he. But with her, she has only to say a soft word or two, and he will be at her feet, I’ll be bound. I am ashamed of them both.”
Meanwhile she was putting on her bonnet, which was a very favourite time with her for meditation, having already made up her mind as to her course of action. Ernest had authorised her to make arrangements for an interview with an oculist. She proceeded to make those arrangements by telegram, wiring to a celebrated surgeon to know if he could make an appointment for the following afternoon. Then she took a walk by herself to think things over. In an hour she returned, to find Ernest in the sitting-room looking extremely shaken and depressed.
“You have been to see Eva?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered.
Just then there was a knock at the door, and the servant brought in a telegram. It was from the occulist. He would be glad to see Sir Ernest Kershaw at four o’clock on the following afternoon.
“I have made an appointment for you with an eye-doctor, Ernest, at four o’clock to-morrow.”
“To-morrow!” he said.
“Yes. The sooner you get your eyes looked to the better.”
He sighed. “What is the good? However, I will go.”
So next morning they all took the express, and at the appointed time Ernest found himself in the skilful hands of the oculist. But though an oculist can mend the sight, he cannot make it.
“I can do nothing for you, Sir Ernest,” he said, after an exhaustive examination. “Your eyes will remain as they are, but you must always be blind.”
Ernest took the news with composure.
“I thought as much,” he said; but Dorothy put her handkerchief to her face and wept secretly.
Next morning he went with Jeremy to call on Messrs. Paisley and Paisley, and told them to try and let Archdale Hall, and to lock up the numerous and valuable heirlooms, as unfortunately he was unable to see them. Then they went on home to Dum’s Ness, and that night Ernest lay awake in the room where he had slept for so many years in the boyhood which now seemed so dim and remote, and listened to the stormy wind raving round the house, and thought with an aching heart of Eva, but was thankful that he had bid her farewell, and wondered if he could find the strength to keep away from her.
And Eva, his lost love, she too lay by the sea and listened to the wind, and thought of him. There she lay in her beauty, seeking the sleep that would not settle on her. She could not sleep; forgetful sleep does not come readily to such as she. For her and those like her are vain regrets and an empty love and longing, and the wreath of thorns that crowns the brow where sorrow is enthroned.
Yet, Eva, lift that fevered head, and turn those seeking eyes to heaven. See, through the casement, above the tumult of the storm, there gleams a star. For you too, there shines a star called Hope, but it is set in no earthly sky. Have patience, wayward heart, there is but a space of trouble. As you suffer, so have millions suffered, and are they not at peace? So shall millions suffer:
“While thou, that once didst make the place thou stoodst in lovely, shalt lie still,|
Thy form departed, and thy face remembered not in good or ill.”
For of this we may be sure—if suffering is not the widest gate of heaven, then heaven has no gates. Unhappy woman, stretch out those longing arms in supplication to the God of sorrows for strength to bear your load, since here it shall not be lightened. The burdens which Providence binds on our backs, Providence will sometimes lessen, but those which our own folly fastens remain till death deliver us.
So, Eva, dry your tears, for they can avail you naught, and go get you to your daily task—go tend your children, and smile that sweet sad smile on all alike, and wait. As you have sowed so shall you reap, but seed-time is not done; not yet is the crop white to the harvest.