Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1861–1889
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889
 
A Wife’s Forgiveness
By George Parsons Lathrop (1851–1898)
 
[An Echo of Passion. 1882.]

FENN rode up and ascertained that they were coming by the usual road; then Anice and he set off.
  1
  Was that transformation of the moonlight something more than a fantasy? As they flew forward under the moon, with large stars waiting for them in advance, just above the sweep of the hills, Fenn was imbued with a kind of illusion that they had been released for the time being from their ordinary selves, and were gliding into some other phase less sharply defined, and not hedged around with too many stubborn realities. Yet he thought of how soon he must cease to see Anice, and this lent a poignancy to the pleasure of the ride. It recalled him to himself, and quickened into more acute pain the dull heart-ache into which the wrath that followed Reeves’s attack had soon subsided.  2
  When they rode more slowly, they talked of the beauty of the night and of incidents at the picnic. The memories of both, however, were busy with that day when they had first ridden over this road; and, through the unseen agency that was always at work between them, each was aware that the other’s thoughts were taking this direction.  3
  “We are getting very far ahead of the rest,” said Anice, as they ascended one of the many rises they had to traverse. “Let’s stop a moment and listen.”  4
  They reined in, and gazed back over the lower ground. The road was empty; the moonlight looked as if it had lain forever on the woods and passive earth, and as if it would never go away. Transient as it is, there is more of eternity in this calm illumination than in the swift and stimulating light of the sun. Fenn thought, “What if we two were to be stricken by some lasting change, here in this pale light, and kept together forever in it,—dead, or mute and blind,—yet conscious of our companionship!” It was an unearthly fancy, but his heart throbbed warmly and fiercely under it. He felt an insatiable desire for some isolating fate which should separate them from everybody else. Yet there was a something within him that remonstrated against this desire: for an instant, he even felt the despair of a drowning man, and struggled within himself for something to hold by and keep himself from being drawn under. In vain!  5
  Such silence was in the air that they could hear the whistle of a locomotive at some great distance,—so far that it was hardly louder than the coo of a bird. But nearer and slighter sounds from the road they had been travelling, as is sometimes the case, did not reach them.  6
  “It is strange,” said Fenn, in a dry tone that gave no hint of what was going on in his mind, “that we don’t hear them coming.”  7
  “Very,” said Anice. “How fresh and sweet it is here!”  8
  Their voices sounded cold in the moonlight.  9
  “Ah, what was that? Isn’t it the carriages?”  10
  A faint rumbling of the vehicles could be detected. “Yes; that’s they at last,” assented Fenn, and immediately touched his horse.  11
  They did not wait again, and when they entered the village they were far in advance. As they came up the hill to the junction of roads which formed an irregular common among the houses, some men moving across this space, with their legs very black against the moonlight, presented a queer appearance.  12
  “Up so far above us, they look like insects crawling on the top of the hill,” Fenn observed; and Anice laughed. They tried to put themselves at ease with trifles of this sort.  13
  He accompanied her at a light trot to the farm-house, where Star was housed by the man, and Fenn’s gray hitched in the barn. “I shall wait here,” Fenn had explained, “until Mr. Evans comes. I don’t like to leave you quite alone.”  14
  “Let us go around into the garden, then,” said Anice. “There are some seats, and it will be pleasanter there.” She was nervous at being thus thrown passively alone with him, and fancied that going into the house would increase her constraint.  15
  The garden lay in an angle between the house and the bank formed by the cutting of the hillside. There were trees here and there; among them one that was dead; and their shadows fell with soft abundance on the brightly flooded paths and beds.  16
  “This is where you found those flower-pods that you sent me?” he asked. It was the first allusion he had made to them.  17
  “Yes,” she replied, her voice coming much fainter than she wished. She would have offered some remark to divert him, but her wit failed her.  18
  Fenn stopped abruptly. They were under the shadow of the dead tree.  19
  “I cannot be bound by that symbol,” he declared, with resistless impetuosity. “I have thrown those skeletons of flowers away, for my honesty is more than a common one; and before I go I must speak.” She drew back, terrified; but he went on, crying, “No, no! Anice—Anice!—don’t judge me as you would other men. There is some fate upon me; I don’t know what; I cannot resist it. Oh, I have tried! But the passion that was beginning and never had free play, when I knew you so long ago, has come again, and will not be stifled. I love you, Anice! You cannot tell me of faiths and duties. I only know this one thing, and it is truer than all others.”  20
  “This is cowardly,” she gasped, when she could. “It is unworthy of you.”  21
  “No, it is not cowardly,” he answered, pale and determined. “It is braver than to keep a lying face. Have you not seen, have we not both known for weeks what was growing up around us? And is it better to part, with that knowledge smouldering in us, than to face it and speak of it faithfully?”  22
  She collected all her force, and said coldly: “If you knew this, you should have gone away long ago, never to see me on earth again. And will you tell me what you think is to be gained by declaring to me now a love that dishonors us all? It is a sin against yourself, and an unpardonable wrong to me.”  23
  He looked at her in rigid silence. “You may deceive yourself,” he said, “but you cannot me. You know well—very well—the power you have had over me. I fancied it was a thing that could be turned into some new kind of devotion, like that we talked of. But you saw how it was overcoming me, and you forbade me to see you again. Why do you accuse me, when you had it all in your hands, and allowed our acquaintance to continue?”  24
  “Because I trusted you and wished you well,” Anice returned, with less firmness. Then, seeing that the only hope was in an immediate parting, she added: “I shall not leave this garden, Mr. Fenn. It is for you to go!” She pointed commandingly towards the entrance by which they had come in.  25
  For an instant all his strength forsook him. Then he burst into a fierce, broken laugh.  26
  “I understand at last,” he said, with a bitter intensity she had never even dreamed of. “You have taken a terrific and skilful vengeance. Out of resentment for a clumsy, boyish mistake, you have deliberately ruined a man’s heart, and made him put his honor in the dust before you. Yes, I’ll go.” He turned, so dizzy that he could hardly see the path, and began to move away.  27
  There was a moment of passionate effort on her part to repress the storm within herself; but as she beheld him receding she yielded, and made a detaining gesture. He saw it, and came back rapidly.  28
  “Am I wrong?” he cried, searching her face. “You felt more than that; you—you loved! Tell me it was so.”  29
  She tried to steady herself by putting her hands out into the air. Then she gasped, “No—no!”  30
  “You did not?” he repeated.  31
  But she could no longer reply. She was on the point of falling; and with an instinct of protection he stretched out his arms, almost enfolding her in them. As they stood thus for an instant, the shadow of the dead tree lay motionless upon them, and the icy moonlight around gave visible bounds to that isolation for which he had so lately wished.  32
  She had confessed nothing; but at that instant Fenn felt that all had been confessed between them. He saw, with a pity that wrung his heart, what her struggle had been; and remorse struck through him like a sword, for his own sin against Ethel, and for the attitude into which he had forced this woman who stood with him here. Was this the joy of liberation he had looked forward to?  33
  Anice recovered herself at once. She drew away from his contact and held on to the bench near at hand. “This will kill me!” she was moaning, like one only half conscious. “All these years—No; oh, no! You must leave me instantly. For Ethel’s sake go; go! Tell her all you have said,—everything.”  34
  “Thank God, Anice, you are nobler than I!” Uttering these words with lips that seemed chilled by a frost, he fled….  35
 
  When he came into the hotel, those who saw him wondered at the breathless and exhausted appearance about his face, ordinarily so strong and composed and glowing with healthy color; but they attributed it to anxiety, for his first words were an inquiry about his wife….  36
  He stood still in the street, and noticed all at once that the moonlight had nearly waned,—the weird illumination which, an hour or two before, had seemed so permanent. It gave him a bitter satisfaction to think how his madness had crumbled and slipped away with it. A huge field of cloud was rising, and had swallowed half the stars.  37
  “Oh, my God! If I should never see Ethel again! What if some accident has happened, from which she will die?”  38
  This was the cry in his heart.  39
  A horse and rider, springing out of the feeble light a little way off, and dashing by, roused him. It had been but a flash, but the face of Kingsmill seemed to be printed on the night air, and to be lingering behind like a vision, while the rider swept on.  40
  Fenn ran after him towards the hotel, at his greatest speed. The young man was there already, dismounted, quivering with excitement, and talking to a little dusky group of men.  41
  “What is it?” cried Fenn, with an awful fear, as the others fell back before him.  42
  “There has been an accident,” said Kingsmill, rapidly.  43
  “Where? Tell me where?”  44
  “The railroad crossing”——  45
  “Is she killed?” The words burst from Fenn like the red drops that spurt from a knife-thrust.  46
  “She was not badly hurt,” said Kingsmill. “The cars struck them just as they had got over, and they were thrown out. But some people are taking care of them.”  47
  “I must go!” cried Fenn wildly, rushing to get Kingsmill’s horse, which was being led away.  48
  “Not that one!” exclaimed the owner. “I have afresh one in the stable.”  49
  There was a sharp scurry to saddle the fresh steed, and just as Fenn put his foot in the stirrup the farmer from Mr. Evans’s came up with the tired gray and a message from Anice, who had also become alarmed.  50
  “For God’s sake, go and tell her, Kingsmill!” shouted Fenn, mounting.  51
  The next instant his horse had shot away, under spur, for the tannery road.
*        *        *        *        *
  52
  It was a solemn group that wound up the highway from the railroad crossing, coming back.  53
  By the time the wagon that had been obtained was ready to start, Anice, also, had arrived on horseback; and the two mounted figures moved at a funereal pace beside the cart. Ethel had fainted at first, but was restored; and, unless she had suffered internal hurt, was judged to be the worse only for a few bruises. Mr. Evans had not come off so well. He had a broken arm, and was prostrated by the shock he had sustained. His light carriage was left behind, a partial wreck, and the borrowed wagon had to proceed slowly, in order to avoid possible injury to the sufferer.  54
  Fenn and Anice did not exchange a word, but both were lost in wonder at the chance that had thus brought them together again on this same night, under such altered conditions. From time to time Fenn, bringing his horse close to the wheels on Ethel’s side, spoke some low word of inquiry or soothing, as indistinguishable to any but her ear as the murmur of the night breeze in the pines. Sometimes, when he fell back and watched the muffled forms reclining in the wagon, a picture presented itself to him in which he saw Ethel as she might have been, motionless and darkly covered and insensible to the jolting of the springs,—a picture of the dead being brought home silently from the place of her death; and then he would turn away and curse himself, in the midst of a mute thanksgiving.  55
  The chemist sat by his wife all night and watched, while she slept, after many vain attempts. In the morning, the physician who had been telegraphed for from a distance arrived, and pronounced with some confidence that she had no unseen injuries.  56
  It was late in the afternoon that Fenn knelt by his wife’s bed, while a soft light from the fading west pervaded the room. Seeing that she was strong and recovered, he spoke: “Ethel, I cannot put off any longer the confession I must make of the wrong that has been in my heart these last few weeks.”  57
  “I have been afraid,” she answered calmly. “Oh, yes, I knew”; and the tears rose in her eyes. “But I must not hear it. I cannot.”  58
  The blood mounted to his face. “How despicable I am!” he groaned. “But you don’t know all, Ethel. You cannot know that I told her”——  59
  She covered her face with her hands, crying, “Oh, why must I believe this! Why can’t I forget it all, pretend that I did not see?” Then, with a hot beating in her temples, she took away her hands, and said with forced deliberation, “Never tell me any more. I cannot promise to be the same to you or to hold you so; but I will hear nothing. Only tell me,—did you mean to do me a wrong? Are you true to me?”  60
  “The wrong,” he replied, “was a madness, an infatuation. That was all. But I am not fit, now, even to say I am true to you.” He lifted his eyes to hers.  61
  She looked into them with a calm, just scrutiny; and Fenn thought that he knew what the light in the recording angel’s eyes must be like. But it was only the glance of a tender woman possessing deep intuitions. She said at length: “I will believe in you.”  62
  Ethel put her hand upon his head, with a touch so simple and gentle that it was the best of benedictions.  63
  He had held, once, that there was a peculiar mystery about Anice, and the belief had made her the more dangerously fascinating. Ethel was transparent enough, exteriorly; but the mystery of her nature lay deeper down, and he was only just beginning to apprehend it. The quality in Anice served merely as a unit of measure for its larger presence in Ethel. Kneeling here before his wife, with too much humility in him even to put his lips to hers, Fenn saw that he was touching the mystery which is profounder than intellectual choice; which diffuses itself through earth and heaven, and solves all but explains nothing,—pure love.  64
 
 
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