Esther by Henry Adams. - HTML preview
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.
The same evening at dinner, Mrs. Murray remarked to her husband that she was becoming more and more uneasy about Esther's intimacy with Mr. Hazard.
"People are talking about it," she said. "It is really becoming a matter of public discussion."
"Do you suppose she would accept him?" asked Mr. Murray.
"How can I tell? She would say no, and then very likely do it. She is in the worst sort of a state of mind for an offer of that kind."
"Poor Dudley will rise from his grave," said Mr. Murray.
"He warned me to prevent such a match if I saw it coming," said Mrs. Murray; "but he did nothing to prevent it himself. He thought Esther was going to be very unhappy, and would make some such mistake. I would interfere, but it will only make matters worse. The thing has gone too far now."
"Take her away," said Mr. Murray.
"Where to? If you will go to Europe in the spring, we will take her over and leave her there with Catherine, but she may be married by that time."
"Give her a lecture," said Mr. Murray. "Show her that she is making a stupendous blunder!"
"Better show him!" said Mrs. Murray with a little resentment. "The blunder will be worse for him than for her."
"Explain it to her!" said he. "She has sense. Esther is a good girl, and I won't stand by and see her throw herself away on a church. I will speak to her myself if you don't."
"A nice piece of work you would make of it!" rejoined his wife. "No! If it is to be done, I suppose I must do it, but she will hate me all her life."
"Do it at once, then," said Mr. Murray. "The longer you put it off, the worse she will take it."
"I will talk with her to-morrow," replied Mrs. Murray; and the next day, when she went to take Esther to drive in the afternoon, her niece received her with an embarrassed air and a high color, and said:
"Aunt! I have something to tell you."
"Good heavens!" gasped Mrs. Murray.
"I am engaged to Mr. Hazard."
The instant Esther felt herself really loved, she met her fate as women will when the shock is once over.
Hazard had wanted her to love him, had pursued and caught her. Now when she turned to him and answered his call, she seemed to take possession of him and lift him up. By the time he left her house this Saturday Esther
evening, he felt that he had found a soul stronger and warmer than his own, and was already a little afraid of it. Every man who has at last succeeded, after long effort, in calling up the divinity which lies hidden in a woman's heart, is startled to find that he must obey the God he summoned.
Esther herself was more astonished than Hazard at the force of this feeling which swept her away. She suddenly found herself passionately attached to a man, whom, down to the last moment, she had thought she could never marry, and now could no more imagine life without him than she could conceive of loving any one else. For the moment she thought that his profession was nothing to her; she could believe whatever he believed and do whatever he did; and if her love, backed by her will, were not strong enough to make his life her own, she cared little what became of her, and could look with indifference on life itself. So far as she was concerned she thought herself ready to worship Woden or Thor, if he did.
The next morning she could not let him preach without being near him, and she made Catherine go with her to St. John's. They took their seats, not in her own pew but in a corner, where no one should notice them under their veils. The experiment was full of peril, though Esther did not know it. This new excitement, coming so swiftly after a fortnight of exhaustion, threw her back into a state of extreme nervousness. Of course the scene of Saturday evening was followed by a sleepless night, and when Sunday morning came, her very restlessness made her hope that she should find repose and calm within the walls of the church. She went believing that she needed nothing so much as the quieting influence of the service, and she was not disappointed, for her sweetest associations were here, and as she glanced timidly up to the scaffolding where her romance had been acted, she felt at home and happy, in spite of the crowd of people who swarmed about her and separated her from the things she loved. In the background stood the solemn and awful associations of the last few weeks, the mysteries and terrors of death, drawing her from thought of earthly things to visions of another world. Full of these deep feelings, saturated with the elixir of love, Esther succumbed to the first notes of the church music. Tears of peaceful delight stood in her eyes. She glanced up towards her Cecilia on the distant wall, wondering at its childishness. How deep a meaning she could give it now, and how religious a feeling!
She was not conscious of rustling silks or waving feathers; she hardly saw the swarm of fashionable people about her; it seemed to her that her old life had vanished as though she were dead; her soul might have taken shelter in the body of some gray linnet for all that she thought or cared about the vanities of human society.
She wanted only to be loved and to love, without being thought of, or noticed; to nestle in her own corner, and let the world go by.
Unluckily the world would not go by. This world which she wanted to keep at arms' length, was at church once for all, and meant to stay there; it felt itself at home, and she, with her exclusive griefs and joys, was the stranger. So long as the music lasted, all was sympathetic enough, but when Mr. Hazard read the service, he seemed far-off and strange. He belonged not to her but to the world; a thousand people had rights of property in him, soul and body, and called their claim religion. What had she to do with it? Parts of the service jarred on her ear. She began to take a bitter pleasure in thinking that she had nothing, not even religious ideas, in common with these people who came between her and her lover. Her fatigue steadily worked on her nerves.
By the time the creed was read, she could not honestly feel that she believed a word of it, or could force herself to say that she ever should believe it.
With fading self-confidence she listened to the sermon. It was beautiful, simple, full of feeling and even of passion, but she felt that it was made for her, and she shrank before the thousand people who were thus let into the secret chambers of her heart. It treated of death and its mystery, covering ignorance with a veil of religious hope, and ending with an invocation of infinite love so intense in feeling and expression that, beautiful as it was, Esther forgot its beauties in the fear that the next word would reveal her to the world. This sort of publicity was new to her, and threw her back on herself until religion was forgotten in the alarm. She became more jealous than ever. What business had these strangers with her love? Why should she share it with them? When the service was over, she hurried Catherine away so quickly that they were both at home before the church was fairly empty.
This was the end of her short happiness. She knew that through the church door lay the only road to her duty and peace of mind. To see that the first happy impression had lasted barely half an hour, and instead of bringing peace, had brought irritation, was cause enough to alarm the most courageous young woman who ever rushed into the maelstrom of matrimony.
When they had reached home, she flung herself into a chair and covered her face with her hands.
"Catherine!" said she solemnly; "what am I to do? I don't like church."
"You would like your's amazingly," said Catherine, "if you had ever been to mine."
"Was your's worse?"
"If Mrs. Murray hadn't improved my manners so much, I should smile. Was mine worse? I wish you and Mr.
Hazard would try it for a change. Mrs. Dyer would like to see you both undergoing discipline. Never joke about serious matters! You had better hold your tongue and be glad to live in a place where your friends let your soul alone."
"But I can't sit still and hear myself turned into a show! I can't share him with all Fifth Avenue. I want no one else to have him. To see him there devoting himself and me to a stupid crowd of people, who have as much right to him as I have, drives religion out of my head."
Catherine treated this weakness with high contempt.
"I might as well be jealous," said she, "of the people who look at Mr. Wharton's pictures, or read Petrarch's sonnets in my sweet translation. Did you ever hear that Laura found fault with Petrarch, or, if she did, that any one believed she was in earnest?"
"It is not the same thing," said Esther. "He believes in his church more than he does in me. If I can't believe in it, he will have to give me up."
"He, give you up!" said Catherine. "The poor saint! You know he is silly about you."
"He must give me up, if I am jealous of his congregation, and won't believe what he preaches," replied Esther mournfully.
"Why should you care what he preaches?" asked Catherine; "you never heard your aunt troubling her head about what Mr. Murray says when he goes to court."
"She is not forced to go to court with him," said Esther; "nor to be a mother to all the old women in the court-room; nor to say that she believes--believes--believes--when in her heart she doesn't believe a word."
Hazard appeared in the middle of this dispute, and Esther, troubled as she was, could not bear to distress him.
She still meant to accept every thing and force herself to follow him in silence; she would go where he led, and never once raise her eyes to look for the horizon. As she said to herself quite seriously, though with a want of reverence that augured ill; "I will go down on my knees and help him, though he turn Bonze and burn incense to Buddha in my very studio!" His presence always soothed her. His gayety and affection never failed to revive her spirits and confidence.
"Wasn't it a good sermon?" said he to Catherine as he came in, with his boyish laugh of triumph. "Give me a little praise! I never got a word of encouragement from you in my life."
"I should as soon think of encouraging a whole herd of Texas cattle," answered Catherine. "What good can my praise do you?"
"You child of nature, don't you know that children of nature like you always grow wild and need no cultivation, but that we artificial flowers can't live without it?"
"I don't know how to cultivate," answered Catherine; "it is Esther you are thinking about."
Having announced this self-evident fact, Catherine walked off and left him to quiet Esther's alarms as he could. As she went she heard him turn to Esther and repeat his prayer that she should be gentle with him and give his sermon a word of praise.
"How can I stop to think whether it is good or not," said Esther, "when I hear you telling all our secrets to our whole visiting list? I could think of nothing but myself, and how I could get away."
"And whose secrets can I tell if not our own?" asked Hazard triumphant.
While he was with her Esther was peaceful and happy, but no sooner had he gone than her terrors began again.
"He will find me out, Catherine, and it will break my heart," she said. "I never knew I had a jealous temper. I am horribly narrow-minded. I'm not fit for him, and I knew it when he asked me. He will hate me when he finds what a wife he has got."
Catherine, who positively declined to recognize Mr. Hazard's superiority of mind over Esther, took this with unshaken fortitude. "If you can stand it, I guess he can," she remarked curtly. "Where do you expect the poor man to get a wife, if all of us say we are not fit for him?"
This view of the case amused Esther for a time, but not for long--the matter was too serious for any treatment but a joke, and joking made it more serious still. Try which way she would there was no escape from her anxiety. Hazard, who had foreseen some trouble from her old associations with loose religious opinion, had taken it for granted, with his usual self-confidence, that from the moment she came within the reach of his faith and took a place by his side she would find no difficulties that he could not easily overcome. "Love is the great magnet of life, and Religion," he said "is Love." Nothing could be simpler than his plan, as he explained to her. She had but to trust herself to him and all was sure to go well. So long as he was with her and could gently thrust aside every idea but that of their own happiness, all went as well as he promised; but unluckily for his plan, Esther had all her life been used to act for herself and to order others rather than take orders of any sort. The more confidently Hazard told her to leave every thing to him, the less it occurred to her to do so.
She could no more allow him to come into her life and take charge of her thoughts than to go down into her kitchen and take charge of her cook. He might reason with her by the hour, and quite convince her that nothing was of the least consequence provided it were left entirely in his hands, but the moment he was out of sight she forgot that he was to be the keeper of her conscience, and, without a thought of her dependence, she resumed the charge of her own affairs.
Her first idea was to learn something of theology, in the hope of settling her foolish and ignorant doubts as to her fitness for her new position. No sooner did the thought occur to her than she set to work, like a young divinity student, to fit herself for her new calling. Her father's library contained a number of theological books, but these were of a kind that suited Mr. Dudley's way of thinking rather than that of the early fathers.
As Esther knew nothing at all about the subject, except what she had gathered from listening to conversation, one book seemed to her as good as another, provided it dealt with the matter that interested her; but when Hazard came in and found her seated on a sofa, with a pile of these works about her, his hair rose on end, and he was forced gently to take them away under the promise of bringing her others of a more correct kind.
These in their turn seemed to her not quite clear, and she asked for others still. He found himself, without warning, on the brink of a theological abyss. Unwilling to worry him; eager to accept whatever he told her he believed, but in despair at each failure to understand what it was, Esther became more and more uncomfortable and terrified.
"What would you do, Catherine, if you were in my place?" she asked.
"Let it alone!" said Catherine. "You didn't ask him to marry you. If he wants you, it's his business to suit himself to you."
"But I must go to his church," said Esther, "and sit at his communion."
"How many people at his church could tell you what they believe?" asked Catherine. "Your religion is just as good as theirs as long as you don't know what it is."
"One learns theology fast when one is engaged to be married," said Esther with a repentant face.
She was already sorry that she had tried to learn any thing about the subject, for she already knew too much, and yet a terrible fascination impelled her to read on about the nature of the trinity and the authority of tradition, until she lost patience with her own stupidity and burned to know what other people had to say on such matters. It occurred to her that she should like to have a quiet talk with George Strong.
Meanwhile Mrs. Murray, panic-stricken at learning the engagement, had sent at once for George. The messenger reached him on Sunday evening, a few hours after Esther told her aunt. Mystified by the urgent tone of Mrs. Murray's note, Strong came up at once, and found his uncle and aunt alone, after dinner, in their parlor, where Mr. Murray was quietly smoking a cigar, while his wife was holding a book in her hand and looking hard into the fire.
"George!" said his aunt solemnly; "do you know the mischief you and your friends have done?"
Strong stared. "You don't mean to tell me that Catherine has run off with Wharton?" said he. "She can't have done it, for I left Wharton not fifteen minutes ago at the club."
"No, not that! thank Heaven! Though if she hadn't more head than ever he had, that French wife of his might have given her more unhappiness than he is worth. No, it's not that! Catherine is the only sensible creature in the family."
Strong glared into the fire for a moment with a troubled air, and then looked at his aunt again. "No!" said he.
"Esther hasn't joined the church. It can't be!"
"Yes!" said Mrs. Murray grimly.
"Caramba!" growled Strong, with a profusion of Spanish gutturals. Then after a moment's reflection, he added: "Poor child! Why should I care?"
"You irritate me more than your uncle does," broke out Mrs. Murray, at last losing patience. "Do you think I should be so distressed if Esther had only joined the church? I should like nothing better. What has happened is very different. She is engaged to Mr. Hazard."
Strong broke into a laugh, and Mr. Murray, with a quiet chuckle of humor, took his cigar out of his mouth to say:
"Let me explain this little matter to you, George! What troubles your aunt is not so much that Esther has joined the church as that she fears the church has joined Esther."
"The church has struck it rich this time;" remarked Strong without a sign of his first alarm. "Now we'll see what they'll make of her."
"The matter is too serious for joking;" said Mrs. Murray. "Either Esther will be unhappy for life, or Mr.
Hazard will leave his church, or they will both be miserable whatever they do. I think you are bound to prevent it, since you are the one most to blame for getting them into it."
"I don't want to prevent it;" replied Strong. "It's a case of survival for the fittest. If Hazard can manage to convert Esther, let him do it. If not, let her take him in charge and convert him if she can. I'll not interfere."
"That is just the remark I had the honor to make to your aunt as you came in," said Mr. Murray. "Yesterday I wanted to stop it. To-day I want to leave it alone. They are both of them old enough to manage their own case.
It has risen now to the dignity of a great cause, and I will be the devil's advocate."
"You are both of you intolerable," said Mrs. Murray, impatiently. "You talk about the happiness of Esther's life as though it were a game of poker. Tell me, George! what kind of a man is Mr. Hazard at heart?"
"Hazard is a priest at heart," replied Strong. "He has the qualities and faults of his class. I understand how this thing happened. He sees nothing good in the world that he does not instantly covet for the glory of God and the church, and just a bit for his own pleasure. He saw Esther; she struck him as something out of his line, for he is used to young women who work altar-cloths; he found that Wharton and I liked her; he thought that such material was too good for heathen like us; so he fell in love with her himself and means to turn her into a candlestick of the church. I don't mind. Let him try! He has done what he liked with us all his life. I have worked like a dog for him and his church because he was my friend. Now he will see whether he has met his match. I double you up all round on Esther."
"You men are simply brutal!" said his aunt. "Esther will be an unhappy woman all her life, whether she marries him or not, and you sit there and will not raise a finger to help her."
"Let him convert her, I say;" repeated Strong. "What is your objection to that, aunt Sarah?"
"My objection is that the whole family is only a drove of mules," said Mrs. Murray. "Poor Mr. Hazard does not know what he is undertaking."
"Is Esther very much in love?" asked Strong.
"You know her well enough to know that she would never have accepted him if she were not;" replied Mrs.
Murray. "He has hunted her down when she was unhappy, and he is going to make her more unhappy still."
"I guess you're right," said Strong, seriously. "The struggle is going to tear both their poor little hearts out; but what can we do about it? None of us are to blame."
"Ah, George!" exclaimed his aunt. "You are the one most to blame. You should have married Esther yourself, and you had not wit enough to see that while you went dancing round the world, as though such women were plenty as your old fossil toads, the only woman you will ever meet who could have made you happy, was slipping through your fingers, and you hadn't the strength to hold her."
"I own it, aunt Sarah!" said George, and this time he spoke seriously enough to satisfy her. "If I could have fallen in love with Esther and she with me, I believe it would have been better for both of us than that she Esther
should marry a high-church parson and I go on digging bones; but some things are too obvious. You can't get a spark without some break in your conductor. I was ready enough to fall in love with Esther, but one can't do that kind of thing in cold blood."
"Well," said Mrs. Murray with a sigh. "You have lost her now, and Mr. Hazard will lose her too. You and he and all your friends are a sort of clever children. We are always expecting you to do something worth doing, and it never comes. You are a sort of water-color, worsted-work, bric-à-brac, washed-out geniuses, just big enough and strong enough to want to do something and never carry it through. I am heartily tired of the whole lot of you, and now I must set to work and get these two girls out of your hands."
"Do you mean to break up this engagement?" asked Strong, who was used to his aunt's criticisms and never answered them.
"The engagement will break itself up," replied his aunt. "It will have to be kept private for a few weeks on account of her father's death and her mourning, and you will see that it never will be announced. If I can, I shall certainly do all in my power to break it up."
"You will?" said Strong. "Well! I mean to do just the contrary. If Esther wants Hazard she shall have him, if I can help her. Why not? Hazard is a good fellow, and will make her a good husband. I have no fault to find with him except that he poaches outside his preserves. He has poached this time to some purpose, but if the parish can stand it, I can."
"The parish cannot stand it," said Mrs. Murray. "They are saying very ugly things already about Esther."
"Then it will not hurt my feelings to see Hazard snub his congregation," replied Strong angrily.
The family conclave ended here, and all parties henceforward fixed their eyes intently on the drama. Mrs.
Murray waited with a woman's instinct for her moment to come. Strong tried to counteract her influence by bungling efforts to make the lovers' path smooth. Catherine was a sort of cushion against which all the billiard balls of the game knocked themselves in succession, leaving her cool and elastic temper undisturbed. Three more days passed without throwing much new light on the disputed question whether the engagement could last, except that Esther seemed clearly more anxious and restless. Mr. Hazard was with her several hours every day and watched over her with extreme vigilance. Mrs. Murray took her to drive every afternoon and not a glance of Esther's eyes escaped scrutiny. Strong stopped once or twice at the house but had no chance to interfere until on Thursday morning, his aunt told him that Esther was rapidly getting into a state of mind that must soon bring on a crisis.
"She cannot possibly make it do," said Mrs. Murray. "She is worrying herself to death already. Mr. Hazard ought to see that she can't marry him."
"She will marry him," answered Strong coolly. "Three women out of four think they can't marry a man at first, but when they come to parting with him, they learn better."
"He is passably selfish, your Mr. Hazard. If he thought a little more of his parish, he would not want to put over them a woman like Esther who has not a quality suited to the place."
"Her qualities are excellent," contradicted Strong. "Once in harness she will be kind and gentle, a little tender-mouthed perhaps, and apt to shy at first, but thorough-bred. He is quite right to take her if he can get her, and what does his parish expect to do about it?"
"The first thing they will do about it will be to make Esther miserable. They have begun to gossip already. A young man, even though he is a clergyman, can't be seen always in company with a pretty woman, without Esther
exciting remark. Only yesterday I was asked point-blank whether my niece was engaged to Mr. Hazard."
"What did you say?"
"I told a lie of course, all the meaner because it was an equivocation. I said that Mr. Hazard had not honored me with any communication on the subject. I score up this first falsehood to his account."
"If you lie no better than that, Aunt Sarah, Hazard's conscience won't trouble him much. When is the engagement to be out?"
"Very soon, at this rate. I thought that Esther, in common decency, could not announce it for a week or two, but every one already suspects it, and she will have to make it public within another week if she means to do so at all. Now that she is her own mistress and lives by herself, she can't have men so much about the house as she might if her father were living."
"Do you seriously think she will break it off?" asked Strong incredulously.
"I feel surer than ever," answered his aunt. "The criticism is going to be bitter, and the longer Esther waits, the more sharply people will talk. I should not wonder if it ended by driving Mr. Hazard out of the parish. He is not strong enough to shock them much. Then Esther is growing more and more nervous every day because the more she tries to understand, the less she succeeds. Yesterday, when I took her to drive, she was in tears about the atonement, and to-day I suppose she will have gone to bed with a sick headache on account of the Athanasian creed."
"I must talk with her," said Strong. "I think I can make some of those things easier for her."
"You? I thought you laughed at them all."
"So I do, but not because they can't be understood. The trouble is that I think I do understand them. Mystery for mystery science beats religion hollow. I can't open my mouth in my lecture-room without repeating ten times as many unintelligible formulas as ever Hazard is forced to do in his church. I can quiet her mind on that score."
"You had better leave it alone, George! Why should you meddle? Let Mr. Hazard fight his own battles!"
George refused to take this wise advice. He was a tender-hearted fellow and could not bear to see his friends suffer. If Esther loved Hazard and wanted to marry him, she should do so though every dogma of the church stood in her way, and every old woman in the parish shrieked sacrilege. Strong had no respect for the church and no wish to save it trouble, but he believed that Hazard was going blindly under Esther's influence which would sooner or later end by drawing him away from his old forms of belief; and as this was entirely Hazard's affair, if he chose to risk the danger, Strong chose to help him.
"Why not?" said Strong to himself. "It is not a question of earning a living. Both of them are well enough off.
If he can turn her into a light of his church, let him do it. If she ends in dragging him out of the church, so much the better. She can't get a better husband, and he can't find a better wife. I mean to see this thing through."
So George strolled round to Esther's house after this interview with his aunt, thinking that he might be able to do good. Being at home there, he went up-stairs unannounced, and finding no one in the library he climbed to the studio, where, on opening the door, he saw Catherine sitting before the fire, looking very much bored.
Poor Catherine found it hard to keep up with life in New York. Fresh from the prairie, she had been first saturated with art, and was now plunged in a bottomless ocean of theology. She was glad to see Strong who Esther
had in her eyes the advantage of being more practical than the rest of her friends.
"Catherine, how are your sheep?"
"I am glad you have come to look after them," answered Catherine. "I won't be watch-dog much longer. They are too troublesome."
"What mischief are they doing now?"
"Every thing they can think of to worry me. Esther won't eat and can't sleep, and Mr. Hazard won't sleep and can't eat. She tries not to worry him, so she comes down on me with questions and books enough to frighten a professor. Do tell me what to say!"
"Where are your questions?" asked Strong.
"This morning she wanted to know what I thought of apostolic succession. She said she was reading some book by a Dr. Newman. What is apostolic succession?"
"A curious disease, quite common among the poorer classes of Sandwich Islanders," replied Strong. "No one has ever found a cure for it."
"Don't laugh at us! We do nothing but cry now, except when Mr. Hazard is here, and then we pretend to be happy. When Esther cries, I cry too. That makes her laugh. It's our only joke, and we used to have so many."
"Don't you think it rather a moist joke?" asked Strong. "I take mine dry."
"I can't tell what she will think a joke," replied Catherine. "She asked me to-day what was my idea of heaven, and I said it was reading novels in church. She seemed to think this a rich bonanza of a joke, and laughed herself into hysterics, but I was as serious as Mr. Wharton's apostles."
"You are never so funny as when you are serious. Never be so any more! Why don't you get her to paint?"
"She won't. I'm rather glad of it, for if she did, I should have to sit for melancholy, or an angel, or something I'm not fitted for by education."
"What shall we do about it?" asked Strong. "Things can't go on in this way."
"I think the engagement had better come out," said Catherine. "The longer it is kept private, the more she will doubt whether she ought to marry a clergyman. What do you think about marrying clergymen? Wouldn't it almost be better to marry a painter, or even a professor?"
"That would be playing it too low down," replied Strong gravely. "I would recommend you to look out for a swell. What has become of your admirer, Mr. Van Dam?"
"Gone!" said Catherine sadly. "Mr. Wharton and he went off together. There is something about me that scares them all off the ranche."
While they were thus improving each other's minds, the door opened and Esther entered. She was pale and her face had no longer the bright look which Wharton had thought so characteristic, but there was no other sign of trouble about her, and she welcomed her cousin as pleasantly as ever, so that he could hardly believe in the stories he had just heard of her distress.
"Good day, Cousin George," she said. "Thank you for coming to cheer up this poor girl. She needs it. Do take her out and amuse her."
"Come out yourself, Esther. You need it more than she does."
"Aunt Sarah is coming at two o'clock to take me to drive," said Esther. "Catherine hates driving unless she drives herself."
"I thought you hated it too."
"Oh, I hate nothing now," replied Esther, with a little of her old laugh. "I am learning to like every thing."
"Is that in the marriage service?" asked Strong. "Do you have to begin so high up? Couldn't you start easy, and like a few things first,--me for instance--and let the rest wait?"
"No," she said, "you are to come last. Honestly, I am more afraid of you than of all the rest of the world. If you knew what a bug-bear you are to me, you would be afraid of yourself. Don't make fun of me any more! I know I am horribly funny, but you must take me in earnest. Poor papa's last words to me were: 'Laugh and you're safe!'--but if I laugh now, I'm lost."
"This is the first time I ever met any one honest enough to acknowledge that marriage was so sad a thing.
Catherine, if I ask you to marry me, will you turn serious?"
"She will turn serious enough if she does it," said Esther. "You would stay with her a week, and then tell her that you were obliged to see a friend in Japan. She would never see you again, but the newspapers would tell her that you had set out to look for bones in the Milky Way."
"What you say sounds to me as though it had a grain of truth," replied Strong. "That reminds me that I got a letter telling me of a lot of new bones only yesterday, but I must leave them underground till the summer; if by that time I can do any thing for you in Oregon, let me know."
"I want you very much to do something for me now," said Esther. "Will you try to be serious a moment for my sake?"
"I don't know," said Strong. "You ask too much all at once. Where are you coming out?"
"Will you answer me a question? Say yes or no!"
"That depends on the question, Mistress Esther! Old birds are not to be caught in old traps. State your question, as we say in the lecture-room."
"Is religion true?"
"I thought so! Cousin Esther, I love you as much as I love any one in this cold world, but I can't answer your question. I can tell you all about the mound-builders or cave-men, so far as known, but I could not tell you the difference between the bones of a saint and those of a heathen. Ask me something easier! Ask me whether science is true!"
"Is science true?"
"Then why do you believe in it?"
"I don't believe in it."
"Then why do you belong to it?"
"Because I want to help in making it truer. Now, Esther, just take this matter coolly! You are bothered, I suppose, by the idea that you can't possibly believe in miracles and mysteries, and therefore can't make a good wife for Hazard. You might just as well make yourself unhappy by doubting whether you would make a good wife to me because you can't believe the first axiom in Euclid. There is no science which does not begin by requiring you to believe the incredible."
"Are you telling me the truth?"
"I tell you the solemn truth that the doctrine of the Trinity is not so difficult to accept for a working proposition as any one of the axioms of physics. The wife of my mathematical colleague, to my knowledge, never even stopped to ask whether it was true that a point had neither length, breadth nor thickness."
Esther pondered a few moments, looking into the fire with a grave face. Then she went on:
"You are not talking honestly. Why should I dare tell you that your old fossil bones are a humbug, when I would not for the world talk so to Mr. Hazard? You don't care whether geology is true or not."
"Well, no, not much!" said Strong. "I should care more if you told me that my best Japanese lacquer was modern."
"Besides," said Esther; "you have not answered my question. I want to know what you think, and you won't tell me. Oh! don't let me lose faith in you too! I know your opinions. You think the whole church a piece of superstition. I've heard you say so, and I want you to tell me why. You're my cousin and I've a right to your help, but you won't give it."
"You are a desperate little tyrant," said Strong laughing. "You always were. Do you remember how we fought when we were children because you would have your own way? I used to give in then, but I am old now, and obstinate."
"I know that you always ended by making me go your way," replied Esther; "but that was because I never cared much where I went. Now it is a matter of life and death. I can't move a step, or even let our engagement be announced until I feel sure that I shall not be a load on his neck. Do you think I should hesitate to break it off, even if I broke my heart with it, if I thought it was going to bring trouble on him?"
Against this assault jesting was out of the question. Strong was forced out of this line of defense and found himself in an awkward position. Esther, not outwardly excited, but leaning her chin on her hand, and gazing into the fire with a look of set will, had the calmness of despair. Strong was staggered and hesitated.
"The trouble with you is that you start wrong," said he at length. "You need what is called faith, and are trying to get it by reason. It can't be done. Faith is a state of mind, like love or jealousy. You can never reason yourself into it."
"So Mr. Hazard says," rejoined Esther. "He tells me to wait and it will come, but he wants me to go on just as though I were certain of its coming. I can't wait. If it does not come quickly, I must do something desperate.
Now tell me what you would do to get faith if the happiness of your whole life hung on it."
Strong rose uneasily from his seat and stood up before the fire. He began to think himself rash for venturing into this arena. He had always believed his cousin to be stronger than Hazard, because Hazard was a clergyman, but he had not hitherto thought her stronger than himself, and he now looked at her carefully, wondering whether he could have managed her. Never in his life had he felt so nearly in love with her as now, under the temptation to try whether she could be made to give up her will to his. This feeling was the stronger because even in his own eyes his conduct so far seemed a little cowardly and ridiculous. He pulled himself up sharply, and, seeing nothing else to be done, he took up the weapons of the church and asserted the tone of authority.
"Every one who marries," he said, "goes it blind, more or less. If you have faith enough in Hazard to believe in him, you have faith enough to accept his church. Faith means submission. Submit!"
"I want to submit," cried Esther piteously, rising in her turn and speaking in accents of real distress and passion. "Why can't some of you make me? For a few minutes at a time I think it done, and then I suddenly find myself more defiant than ever. I want nothing of the church! Why should it trouble me? Why should I submit to it? Why can't it leave me alone?"
"What you want is the Roman church," continued Strong mercilessly. "They know how to deal with pride of will. Millions of men and women have gone through the same struggle, and the church tells them to fix their eyes on a symbol of faith, and if their eyes wander, scourges them for it." As he talked, he took up the little carved ivory crucifix which stood on the mantel-piece among other bits of studio furniture, and holding it up before her, said: "There! How many people do you think, have come to this Christ of yours that has no meaning to you, and in their struggle with doubt, have pressed it against their hearts till it drew blood? Ask it!"
"Is that all?" said Esther, taking the crucifix from his hand and looking curiously at it. Then she silently put it against her heart and pressed it with more and more force, until Strong caught her hand in alarm and pulled it away.
"Come!" said he coolly, as he forced her to give up the crucifix; "my little bluff has failed. I throw up the hand. You must play it out with Hazard."
Mr. Hazard was not happy. Like Esther he felt himself getting into a state of mind that threatened to break his spirit. He had been used to ordering matters much as he pleased. His parish at Cincinnati, being his creation, had been managed by him as though he owned it, but at St. John's he found himself less free, and was conscious of incessant criticism. He had been now some months in his new pulpit; his popular success had been marked; St. John's was overflowing with a transient audience, like a theater, to the disgust of regular pew-owners; his personal influence was great; but he felt that it was not yet, and perhaps never could be, strong enough to stand the scandal of his marriage to a woman whose opinions were believed to be radical. On this point he was not left in doubt, for the mere suspicion of his engagement raised a little tempest in the pool.
The stricter sect, not without reason, were scandalized. They held to their creed, and the bare mention of Esther Dudley's name called warm protests from their ranks. They flatly said that it would be impossible for Mr. Hazard to make them believe his own doctrine to be sound, if he could wish to enter into such a connection. None but a free-thinker could associate with the set of free-thinkers, artists and other unusual people whose society Mr. Hazard was known to affect, and his marriage to one of them would give the unorthodox a hold on the parish which would end by splitting it.
One of his strongest friends, who had done most to bring him to New York and make his path pleasant, came to him with an account of what was said and thought, softening the expression so as to bear telling.
"You ought to hear about it," said he, "so I tell you; but it is between you and me. I don't ask whether you are engaged to Miss Dudley. For my own pleasure, I wish you may be. If I were thirty years younger I would try for her myself; but we all know that she has very little more religious experience than a white rosebud. I'm not strict myself, I don't mind a little looseness on the creed, but the trouble is that every old woman in the parish knows all about the family. Her father, William Dudley, a great friend of mine as you know, was a man who liked to defy opinion and never hid his contempt for ours. He paid for a pew at St. John's because, he said, society needs still that sort of police. But he has told me a dozen times that he could get more police for his money by giving it to the Roman Catholics. He never entered his pew. His brother-in-law Murray is just as bad, never goes near the church, and is always poking fun at us who do. The professor is a full-fledged German Darwinist, and believes in nothing that I know of, unless it is himself. Esther took to society, and I'm told by my young people that she was one of the best waltzers in town until she gave it up for painting and dinners. Her set never bothered their heads about the church. Of the whole family, Mrs. Murray is the only one who has any weight in the parish, and she has a good deal, but if I know her, she won't approve the match any more than the rest, and you must expect to get the reputation of being unorthodox. Only yesterday old Tarbox told me he thought you were rather weak on the Pentateuch, and the best I could say was that now-a-days we must choose between weak doctrines and weak brains, and of the two, I preferred to let up on the Pentateuch."
All this was the more annoying to Mr. Hazard because his orthodoxy was his strong point. Like most vigorous-minded men, seeing that there was no stopping-place between dogma and negation, he preferred to accept dogma. Of all weaknesses he most disliked timid and half-hearted faith. He would rather have jumped at once to Strong's pure denial, than yield an inch to the argument that a mystery was to be paltered with because it could not be explained. The idea that these gossiping parishioners of his should undertake to question his orthodoxy, tried his temper. He knew that they disliked his intimacy with artists and scientific people, but he was not afraid of his parish, and meant that his parish should be a little afraid of him. He preferred to give them some cause of fault-finding in order to keep them awake. His greatest annoyance came from another side. If such gossip should reach Esther's ears, it would go far towards driving her beyond his control, and he knew that even without this additional alarm, it was with the greatest difficulty he could quiet and restrain her. The threatened disaster was terrible enough when looked at as a mere question of love, but it went much deeper. He was ready to override criticism and trample on remonstrance if he could but succeed in drawing her into the fold, because his lifelong faith, that all human energies belonged to the church, was on trial, and, if it broke down in a test so supreme as that of marriage, the blow would go far to prostrate him forever. What was his religious energy worth if it did not carry him successfully through such stress, when the strongest passion in life was working on its side?
At the hour when Strong was making his disastrous attempt to relieve Esther of her scruples, Mr. Hazard was listening to these exasperating criticisms from his parish. It was his habit to come every day at noon to pass an hour with Esther, and as he entered the house to-day he met Strong leaving it, and asked him to spare the time for a talk the same evening. He wanted Strong's advice and help.
A brace of lovers in lower spirits than Hazard and Esther could not have been easily found in the city of New York or its vicinity this day, and the worst part of their depression was that each was determined to hide it from the other. Esther could not tell him much more than he already knew, and would not throw away her charm over him by adding to his anxieties, while he knew that any thing he could tell her would add to her doubts and perhaps drive her to some sudden and violent step. Luckily they were too much attached to each other to feel the full awkwardness of their attitude.
"It is outrageously pleasant to be with you," he said. "One's conscience revolts against such enjoyment. I wonder whether I should ever get enough."
"I shall never give you a chance," said she. "I shall be strict with you and send you off to your work before you can get tired of me."
"You make me shockingly weary of my work," he answered. "At times I wish I could stop making a labor of religion, and enjoy it a little. How pleasant it would be to go off to Japan together and fill our sketch-books with drawings."
This suggestion came on Esther so suddenly that she forgot herself and gave a little cry of delight. "Oh, are you in earnest?" she said. "It seems to me that I could crawl and swim there if you would go with me."
Then she saw her mistake. Her outburst of pleasure gave him pain. He was displeased with himself for speaking so thoughtlessly, for this idea of escape made both of them conscious of the chasm on whose edge they stood.
"No, I wish I could be in earnest," he answered, "but I have just begun work, and there is no vacation for me.
You must keep up my courage. Without your help I shall break down."
If he had thought out in advance some device for distressing her, he could not have succeeded better. She had just time to realize the full strength of her love for him, when he thrust the church between them, and bade her love him for its sake. The delight of wandering through the world by his side flashed on her mind only to show a whole Fifth Avenue congregation as her rival. The conviction that the church was hateful to her and that she could never trust herself to obey or love it, forced itself on her at the very moment when she felt that life was nothing without her lover, and that to give up all the world besides in order to go with him, would be the only happiness she cared to ask of her destiny. The feeling was torture. So long as he remained she controlled it, but when he went away she wrung her hands in despair and asked herself again and again what she could do; whether she was not going mad with the strain of these emotions.
Before she had fairly succeeded in calming herself, her aunt came to take her out for their daily drive. Since her father's death, this drive with her aunt, or a walk with Catherine, had been her only escape from the confinement of the house, and she depended on it more than on food and drink. They went first to some shops where Mrs. Murray had purchases to make, and Esther sat alone in the carriage while her aunt was engaged within in buying whatever household articles were on her list for the day. As Esther, sitting quietly in the corner of the carriage, mechanically watched the passers-by, she saw the familiar figure of Mr. Wharton among them, and, with a sudden movement of her old vivacity, she bent forward, caught his eye, and held out her hand. He stopped before the carriage window, and spoke with more than common cordiality.
"I wanted to come and see you, but I heard you received no one."
"I will always see you," she replied.
Looking more than ever shy and embarrassed he said that he should certainly come as soon as his work would let him, and meanwhile he wanted her to know how glad he was to be able at last to offer his congratulations.
"Congratulations? On what?" said she, beginning to flush scarlet.
Wharton stammered out: "I was this moment told by a lady of your acquaintance that your engagement to Mr.
Hazard was formally announced to-day."
Esther grew as pale as she had been red, and answered quietly: "When my engagement to any one is announced, I promise to let you know of it, Mr. Wharton, before the world knows it."
He apologized and passed on. Esther, shrinking back into her corner, struggled in vain to recover from this new blow. Mrs. Murray, on returning, found her in a state of feverish excitement.
"I am being dragged in against my will," said she. "I am beyond my depth. What am I to do?"
"Most women feel so at first," replied her aunt calmly. "Many want to escape. Some are afterwards sorry they didn't."
"Have you heard of this too, and not told me?" asked Esther.
Mrs. Murray had thought too long over the coming trouble to hesitate now that the moment had come. She had watched for the crisis; her mind was made up to take her share of the responsibility; so she now settled herself down to the task. As the thing had to be done, she thought that the shortest agony was the most merciful.
"Yes!" she answered. "Several persons have mentioned it to me, and I have had to profess not to know what they meant."
"What did they say?" asked Esther breathlessly.
"The only one who has talked openly to me about it is your friend Mrs. Dyer. The story came from her, and I believe she invented it. Of course she disapproves. I never knew her to approve."
"What reason does she give?"
"She says that you are an amiable girl, but one given up to worldly pursuits and without a trace of religious principle; the last woman to make a clergyman's wife, though you might do very well for an artist or somebody wicked enough for you, as I gathered her idea. I am told that she amuses herself by adding that she never took Mr. Hazard for a clergyman, and the sooner he quits the pulpit, the better. She is never satisfied without hitting every one she can reach."
"What does she want?" asked Esther.
"I suppose she wants to break off the intimacy. She thinks there is no actual engagement yet, and the surest way to prevent one is to invent one in time."
Esther reflected a few minutes before beginning again.
"Aunt, do you think I am fit to be his wife?"
"It all depends on you," replied Mrs. Murray. "If you feel yourself fit, you are the best person in the world for it. You would be a brand saved from the burning, and it will be a great feather in Mr. Hazard's cap to convert you into a strong church-woman. He could then afford to laugh at Mrs. Dyer, and all the parish would laugh with him."
"Aunt!" said Esther in an awe-struck tone; "I am jealous of the church. I never shall like it."
"Then, Esther, you are doing very wrong to let Mr. Hazard think you can marry him. You will ruin him, and yourself too."
"He has seen how I have struggled," answered Esther with a sort of sob. "I never knew how gentle and patient a man could be until I saw how he helped me. He began by taking all the risk. I told him faithfully that I was not fit for him, and he said that he only asked me to love him. I did love him. I love him so much that if he were a beggar in the street here and wanted me, I would get down and pick up rags with him."
She moaned out this last sentence so piteously that Mrs. Murray's heart bled. "Poor child!" she thought. "It is like crushing a sparrow with a stone. I must do it quickly."
"Tell him all about it, Esther! It is his affair more than yours. If his love is great enough to take you as you are, do your best, and never let him repent it; but you must make him choose between you and his profession."
"I can't do that!" said Esther quickly. "I would rather go on and leave it all to chance."
"If you do," replied Mrs. Murray, "You will only put yourself into his hands. Sooner or later Mr. Hazard must find out that you don't belong to him. Then it will be his duty to make you choose between your will and his.
You had better not let yourself be put in such a position. A woman can afford to break an engagement, but she can't afford to be thrown over by a man, not even if he is a clergyman, and that is what Mr. Hazard will have to do to you if you let him go on."
"Oh, I know him better!" broke out Esther. She resented bitterly this cruel charge against her lover, but nevertheless it cut into her quivering nerves until her love seemed to wither under it. The idea that he could ever want to get rid of her was the last drop in her cup of bitterness. Mrs. Murray knew how to crush her sparrow. She needed barely five minutes to do it. From the moment that Esther's feminine pride was involved, the sparrow was dead.
Certainly Hazard had as yet no thought of giving up his prize, but he had reached the first stage of wondering what he should do with it. Naturally sanguine and perhaps a little spoiled by flattery and success, he had taken for granted that Esther would at once absorb her existence in his. He hoped that she would become, like most converts, more zealous than himself. After a week of trial, finding her not only unaffected by his influence but actually slipping more and more from his control, he began to feel an alarm which grew more acute every hour, and brought him for the first time face to face with the possibility of failure. What could he do to overcome this fatal coldness.
With very uneasy feelings he admitted that a step backwards must be taken, and it was for this purpose that he wanted to consult with Strong. Never was the Church blessed with a stranger ally than this freest of free thinkers, who looked at churches very much as he would have looked at a layer of extinct oysters in a buried mud-bank. Strong's notion was that since the Church continued to exist, it probably served some necessary purpose in human economy, though he could himself no more understand the good of it than he could comprehend the use of human existence in any shape. Since men and women were here, idiotic and purposeless as they might be, they had what they chose to call a right to amuse themselves in their own way, and if this way made some happy without hurting others, Strong was ready enough to help. He was as willing to help Hazard as to help Esther, provided the happiness of either seemed to be within reach; and as for forms of faith it seemed to him as easy to believe one thing as another. If Esther believed any thing at all, he could see no reason why she might not believe whatever Hazard wanted.
With all the good-will in the world he came from his club after dinner to Hazard's house. As the way was short he did not even grumble, knowing that he could smoke his cigar as well at one place as at the other. He found Hazard in his library, walking up and down, with more discouragement on his face than Strong had ever seen there before. The old confusion of the room had not quite disappeared; the books were not yet all arranged on their shelves; pictures still leaned against the wall; dust had accumulated on them, and even on the large working table where half-written sermons lay scattered among a mass of notes, circulars, invitations and unanswered letters. It was clear that Mr. Hazard was not an orderly person and needed nothing so much as a wife. Esther would have been little flattered at the remark, now rather common among his older friends, that almost any wife would be better for him than none.
With an echo of his old boyish cordiality he welcomed Strong, gave him the best easy-chair by the fire, and told him to smoke as much as he liked.
"Perhaps a cigar will give you wisdom," he added. "You will need it, for I want to consult you about Esther."
"Don't!" said Strong laconically.
"Hush!" replied Hazard. "You put me out. I don't consult you because I like it, but because I must. The matter is becoming serious, and I must either consult you or Mrs. Murray. I prefer to begin with you. It's a habit I have."
"At your own risk, then!"
"I suppose I shall have to take whatever risk there is in it," answered Hazard. "I must do something, for if my amiable parishioner, Mrs. Dyer, gets at Esther in her present state of mind, the poor child will work herself into a brain fever. But first tell me one thing! Were you ever in love with Esther yourself!"
"Never!" replied Strong, peacefully. "Esther always told me that I had nothing but chalk and plate-glass in my mind, and could never love or be loved. We have discussed it a good deal. She says I am an old glove that fits well enough but will not cling. Of course it was her business to make me cling and I told her so. No! I never was in love with her, but I have been nearer it these last ten days than ever before. She will come out of her trouble either made or marred, and a year hence I will tell you which."
"Take care," said Hazard. "I have learned to conquer all my passions except jealousy, and that I have never yet tried."
"If she marries you," replied Strong, "that will settle it."
" If she marries me!" broke out Hazard, paying no attention to Strong's quiet assumption that for Esther to be thus married was to be marred. "Do you mean that there is any doubt about it?"
"I supposed that was what you wanted to talk about," answered Strong with some surprise. "Is any thing else the matter?"
"You always put facts in a horribly materialistic way," responded Hazard. "I wanted to consult you about making things easier for her, not about broken engagements."
"Bless your idealistic soul!" said Strong. "I have already tried to help her in that way, and made a shocking piece of work. Has not Esther told you?" and he went on to give his friend an account of the morning's conversation in which his attempt to preach the orthodox faith had suffered disastrous defeat. Hazard listened closely, and at the end sat for some time silent in deep thought. Then he said:
"Esther told me something of this, though I did not get the idea it was so serious. I am glad to know the whole; but you should not have tried to discipline her. Leave the thunders of the church to me."
"What could I do?" asked Strong. "She jammed me close up to the wall. I did not know where to turn. You would have been still less pleased if I had done what she wanted, and given her the whole Agnostic creed."
"I am not quite so sure about that," rejoined Hazard thoughtfully. "I am never afraid of pure atheism; it is the flabby kind of sentimental deism that annoys me, because it is as slippery as air. If you will tell her honestly what your skepticism means, I will risk the consequences."
"Just as you like!" said Strong; "if she attacks me again, I will give her the strongest kind of a dose of what you are pleased to call pure atheism. Not that I mind what it is called. She shall have it crude. Only remember that I prefer to tackle her on the other side."
"Do as you please!" said Hazard. "Now let us come to business. All Esther wants is time. I am as certain as I Esther
can be of any thing in this uncertain world, that a few weeks, or at the outside a few months, will quiet all her fears. What I want is to stop this immediate strain which is enough to distract any woman."
"Stop the strain of course!" said Strong. "I want to stop it almost as much as you do, but it looked to me this morning as though what you call strain were a steady drift which pays no sort of heed to our trying to stop it."
"I feel sure it is only nervousness," said Hazard earnestly. "Give her time, quiet and rest! She will come out right."
"Then what is it that I can do?"
"Help me to get her out of New York."
"I will ask my aunt to help you," replied Strong; "but how are we to do it? The earthly paradise is not to be found in this neighborhood in the middle of February."
"Never mind! If you and she will back me, we can do it, and it must be done instantly to be of use. There is no end of parish gossip which must not come to Esther's ears, or it will drive her wild. Take her to Florida, California, or even to Europe if you can! Give me time to smooth things down! If she stays here we shall all be the worse for it."
As usual, Hazard had his way. George consented to do all he asked and even to take Esther away himself if it were necessary. The next morning he appeared soon after breakfast at his aunt's to report Hazard's wishes and to devise the means of satisfying them. Much to his relief, and rather to his astonishment, he found Mrs.
Murray disposed to look with favor on the idea. She listened quietly to his story, and after a little reflection, asked:
"Where do you think we had best go?"
"Do you mean to go too?" asked Strong in surprise. "Why should you tear yourself up by the roots to please Hazard?"
"Those two girls can't go alone," said Mrs. Murray; "and as for me, I don't go to please Mr. Hazard. I don't think he is going to be pleased."
"Now what mischief are you brewing, Aunt Sarah? I am Hazard's friend, and bound to see him through. Don't make me a party to any scheme against him!"
"You are not very bright, George, and just now you are rather ridiculous, because you do not in the least know what you are about."
"Go on!" said Strong with irrepressible good nature. "Play out all your trumps and let my suit in!"
"Could you be ready to start for Niagara by to-morrow morning?" asked his aunt.
"To-morrow is Saturday. Yes! I could manage it."
"Could you get some pleasant man to go with you?"
"Not much chance!" he replied. "I might ask Wharton, but he is very busy."
"Try for him! I will send you a note to your club early this evening to say whether I shall want you or not. If I Esther
make you go, I shall go too, and take Esther and Catherine."
"I will do any thing you want," said Strong, "on condition that you tell me what you are about."
Mrs. Murray looked at her nephew with a pitying air, and said:
"Any one with common sense might see that Esther's engagement never could come to any thing."
"But you are trying to hold her to it."
"I am trying to do no such thing. I expect Esther to dismiss him; then she will need some change of scene, and I mean to take her away."
"To-day?" asked Strong in alarm.
"To-day or to-morrow! Sooner or later! We have got to be ready for it at any moment. Now do you understand?"
"I think I am beginning to catch on," replied Strong with a grave face. "I wish I were out of the scrape."
"I told you never to get into it," rejoined his aunt.
"Poor Hazard!" muttered George, wondering whether he could do anything to ward off this last blow from his friend.
Even as he spoke, the crisis was at hand. Mrs. Murray's calculations were exact. While Hazard had been arranging with Strong the plan for getting Esther away from New York, letting the engagement remain private, Esther, in a state of feverish restlessness was wearying Catherine with endless discussion of her trouble. Even Catherine felt that, one way or the other, it was time for this thing to stop. Esther had passed the stage of self-submission, and was in a mutinous mood. She had given up the effort to reconcile herself with her situation, and yet could talk of nothing but Hazard, until Catherine's good-nature was sorely tried.
"I never was such a bore till now," said Esther at length, as though she could not at all understand it. "I could sometimes be quite pleasant. I used to go about the house singing and laughing. Am I going mad?"
"Suppose we go mad together?" said Catherine. "I will if you will."
"Suppose we elope together!" said Esther. "Will you run off with me?"
"Any where but to Colorado," replied Catherine, "I have seen all I want of Colorado."
"We will take our wedding journey together and leave our husbands behind. Let them catch us if they can!"
continued Esther, talking rapidly and feverishly.
"It would be rather fun to see Mr. Hazard driving Mr. Van Dam's fast trotters after us," remarked Catherine.
"When shall we go? Can we start now?"
"Don't you think we had better go to bed just now, and elope in the morning?" grumbled Catherine. "They can see us better by daylight."
"I tell you, Catherine, that I am in awful earnest. I mean to go away somewhere, and if you won't go with me, Esther
I shall go alone."
"Suppose they catch us?" said Catherine.
"I don't care! I am hopelessly wicked! I can't be respectable and believe the thirty-nine articles. I can't go to church every Sunday or hold my tongue or pretend to be pious."
"Then why don't you tell him so, and let him run away?" asked Catherine.
"Because then he would think it his duty to run," said Esther, "and I don't want to be run away from. Would you like to have the world think you were jilted?"
"How you do torture your poor brain!" said Catherine pityingly. "There! Go to bed now! It is long past midnight. To-morrow I will run you off, and you never shall go to church any more."
Esther was really in a way to alarm her friends. She went to bed as Catherine advised, but her sleep was feverish, as though she had dieted herself on opium. She acted over and over again the scene that lay before her, until her brain felt physically weary, as though it had run all night round and round its narrow chamber.
Her head was so tired in the morning that it was a relief to get up and face real life. She dressed herself with uncommon care. She meant to keep her crown even though she threw away her kingdom, and though she should lose a husband, she intended to hold fast her lover. Women have the right to this coquetry with fate.
Iphigenia herself, when the priests, who muffled her voice, stretched her on the altar and struck the knife in her throat, tried to charm them with her sad eyes while her saffron blood was flowing, and they saw that she would have charmed them with her voice even when hope had vanished.
The unfortunate Hazard was not precisely an Agamemnon, and would have liked nothing better than to stop the sacrifice which seemed to him much too closely like a triumph over himself. His own throat was the one which felt itself in closest danger of the knife. At noon, as usual, he came in, trying to conceal his anxiety under an appearance of confidence, but Esther's first words routed all his forces and drove him back to his last defense.
"I should not have let you come to-day. I ought to have written to bid you good-by, but it was too hard not to see you once more. I am going away."
"I am going with you," said Hazard quietly.
"No, you are not!" replied Esther. "You are to stay here and attend to your duties. Forget me as soon as you can."
Hazard took this address very good-naturedly, and neither showed nor felt surprise. "You have been tormented by this idea," he said, "and I am glad now to meet it face to face. For us to part is impossible. You and I are one. You cannot get yourself apart from me, though you may make us both unhappy; and even if you go away forever you will still belong to me. I could not release you if I would."
"I don't want to be released," said Esther. "If it were only for that, I would stay with you as long as you would let me. I would do whatever you told me, and never ask a question. But I will not be your evil genius. I will be your good genius or nothing."
"Be my good genius then! What stands in your way?"
"I have tried and failed. Already there is not a woman in your parish who is not saying that I shall ruin you and your career. I would rather die than run the risk of your thinking I had done you harm."
"If I, seeing all this, am willing to take the risk, why should you ally yourself against me with all the petty gossip of a parish?" asked Hazard. "Such talk will stop the moment you say the word. Let me go out now and announce our engagement! If I did not sometimes shock my parish, I could never manage them."
"But I would rather not be made useful in that way," said Esther with a momentary gleam of humor in her eyes. "No woman wants to be shocking. Now I have a favor to ask of you. It is the last, and I want you to promise to grant it."
"Not if it is to give you up."
"I want you to make it easy for me. I am trying to do right. I am so weak and unhappy after all that has happened that if you are cruel to me, I shall want to die. Be generous! You know I am right. Let me go quietly, and do not torture me!"
She sat down as they were talking. He, sinking into a chair by her side, took both her hands in his, and she did not try to free them. When she made her appeal, he answered as quietly and stubbornly as before: "Never!
You are my wife, and my wife you will always be in my eyes. I shall not give you up. I shall not make it easy for you to give me up. I shall make it as hard as I can. I shall prevent it. But I will do anything you like to make our engagement easy, and I came to-day with something to propose."
No doubt, had Hazard taken her at her word and coolly walked away, Esther would have been very unpleasantly surprised. She did not expect him to obey her first orders, nor did she want to hurry the moment of separation, or to part from him with a feeling of bitterness. His presence always soothed and satisfied her, and she had never been calmer than now, when, with her hands in his, she waited for his new suggestion.
"I want you to do me a favor not nearly so great as the one you ask of me," said he. "Give me time! Go abroad, if you think best, but let our engagement stand! Let me come out and join you in the summer. I am ready to see you go where you like, and stay as long as you please, if you take me with you."
Esther reflected for a moment how she should answer. She had thought of this plan and rejected it long before, because it seemed to her to combine all possible objections, and to get rid of none. She knew that neither six months nor six years would make her a fit wife for Hazard, and that it would be dishonest to lure him on by any hope that she could change her nature; but it was not easy to put this in delicate words. At length she answered simply.
"I am almost the last person in the world whom you ought to marry. Time will only make me more unfit."
"Should you think so," he asked quickly, "if I were a lawyer, or a stock broker?"
She colored and withdrew her hands. "No!" she said. "If you were a stock broker I suppose I should be quite satisfied. Now I am low enough, am I not? Don't make me feel more degraded than I am. Let me go off alone and forget me!"
But Hazard continued to press his point with infinite patience and gentle obstinacy, until her powers of resistance were almost worn out. Again and again the tears came into her eyes, and she would have told him gladly to take her and do what he liked with her, if she had not steeled herself with the fixed thought that in this case the whole struggle must begin again, and he would know no better what to do with her than before.
He would talk only of their love, attacking her where she could not defend herself, and took almost a pleasure in acknowledging that she was at his mercy.
"Oh, if you want only my love," she said at last with a gesture of despair, "I have lost all my pride. I would like nothing better than to lie down and die in your arms. I will promise to be faithful to you all my life; to go Esther
into a convent if you want it; to drown myself, or do any thing but lose your love."
"It is not so very much I ask," he urged. "You fear hurting me by marrying me. Do you ever reflect how much you will hurt me by refusing? Do you know how solitary I am? Not a human being counts for any thing in my life. When I go to my rooms, I am terrified to think how lonely they will seem unless I can keep you in my mind. You are the only woman I ever loved. You are my companion, my ideal, my life. We two souls have wandered about the universe from all eternity waiting to meet each other, and now after we have met and become one, you try to part us."
As he went on with this appeal, he wrought himself into stronger and stronger expression of feeling, while Esther fell back in her chair and covered her face with her hands.
"If I am willing to risk every thing for you, why should you refuse to grant me so small a favor as I ask? Look, Esther! What more can I do? Will you not make a little sacrifice of pride for me? Will you ever find another man to love you as I do?"
"How merciless you are!" sobbed Esther.
"I ask only for time," he hurried on. "To part from you now, in this room, at this moment, forever, is awful!