The Evil Genius by Wilkie Collins - HTML preview
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52. L'homme propose, et Dieu dispose
Captain Bennydeck met Catherine and her child at the open door of the room. Mrs. Presty, stopping a few paces behind them, waited in the passage; eager to see what the Captain's face might tell her. It told her nothing.
But Catherine saw a change in him. There was something in his manner unnaturally passive and subdued. It suggested the idea of a man whose mind had been forced into an effort of self-control which had exhausted its power, and had allowed the signs of depression and fatigue to find their way to the surface. The Captain was quiet, the Captain was kind; neither by word nor look did he warn Catherine that the continuity of their intimacy was in danger of being broken--and yet, her spirits sank, when they met at the open door.
He led her to a chair, and said she had come to him at a time when he especially wished to speak with her. Kitty asked if she might remain with them. He put his hand caressingly on her head; "No, my dear, not now."
The child eyed him for a moment, conscious of something which she had never noticed in him before, and puzzled by the discovery. She walked back, cowed and silent, to the door. He followed her and spoke to Mrs. Presty.
"Take your grandchild into the garden; we will Join you there in a little while. Good-by for the present, Kitty."
Kitty said good-by mechanically--like a dull child repeating a lesson. Her grandmother led her away in silence.
Bennydeck closed the door and seated himself by Catherine.
"I thank you for your letter," he said. "If such a thing is possible, it has given me a higher opinion of you than any opinion that I have held yet."
She looked at him with a feeling of surprise, so sudden and so overwhelming that she was at a loss how to reply. The last words which she expected to hear from him, when he alluded to her confession, were the words that had just passed his lips.
"You have owned to faults that you have committed, and deceptions that you have sanctioned," he went on--"with nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by telling the truth. Who but a good woman would have done that?"
There was a deeper feeling in him than he had ventured to express. It betrayed itself by a momentary trembling in his voice. Catherine drew a little closer to him.
"You don't know how you surprise me, how you relieve me," she said, warmly--and pressed his hand. In the eagerness of her gratitude, in the gladness that had revived her sinking heart, she failed to feel that the pressure was not returned.
"What have I said to surprise you?" he asked. "What anxiety have I relieved, without knowing it?"
"I was afraid you would despise me."
"Why should I despise you?"
"Have I not gained your good opinion under false pretenses? Have I not allowed you to admire me and to love me without telling you that there was anything in my past life which I have reason to regret? Even now, I can hardly realize that you excuse and forgive me; you, who have read the confession of my worst faults; you, who know the shocking inconsistencies of my character--"
"Say at once," he answered, "that I know you to be a mortal creature. Is there any human character, even the noblest, that is always consistently good?"
"One reads of them sometimes," she suggested, "in books."
"Yes," he said. "In the worst books you could possibly read--the only really immoral books written in our time."
"Why are they immoral?"
"For this plain reason, that they deliberately pervert the truth. Clap-trap, you innocent creature, to catch foolish readers! When do these consistently good people appear in the life around us, the life that we all see? Never! Are the best mortals that ever lived above the reach of temptation to do ill, and are they always too good to yield to it? How does the Lord's Prayer instruct humanity? It commands us all, without exception, to pray that we may not be led into temptation. You have been led into temptation. In other words, you are a human being. All that a human being could do you have done--you have repented and confessed. Don't I know how you have suffered and how you have been tried! Why, what a mean Pharisee I should be if I presumed to despise you!"
She looked at him proudly and gratefully; she lifted her arm as if to thank him by an embrace, and suddenly let it drop again at her side.
"Am I tormenting myself without cause?" she said. "Or is there something that looks like sorrow, showing itself to me in your face?"
"You see the bitterest sorrow that I have felt in all my sad life."
"Is it sorrow for me?"
"No. Sorrow for myself."
"Has it come to you through me? Is it my fault?"
"It is more your misfortune than your fault."
"Then you can feel for me?"
"I can and do."
He had not yet set her at ease.
"I am afraid your sympathy stops somewhere," she said. "Where does it stop?"
For the first time, he shrank from directly answering her. "I begin to wish I had followed your example," he owned. "It might have been better for both of us if I had answered your letter in writing."
"Tell me plainly," she cried, "is there something you can't forgive?"
"There is something I can't forget."
"What is it? Oh, what is it! When my mother told poor little Kitty that her father was dead, are you even more sorry than I am that I allowed it? Are you even more ashamed of me than I am of myself?"
"No. I regret that you allowed it; but I understand how you were led into that error. Your husband's infidelity had shaken his hold on your respect for him and your sympathy with him, and had so left you without your natural safeguard against Mrs. Presty's sophistical reasoning and bad example. But for that wrong-doing, there is a remedy left. Enlighten your child as you have enlightened me; and then--I have no personal motive for pleading Mr. Herbert Linley's cause, after what I have seen of him--and then, acknowledge the father's claim on the child."
"Do you mean his claim to see her?"
"What else can I mean? Yes! let him see her. Do (God help me, now when it's too late!)-- do what you ought to have done, on that accursed day which will be the blackest day in my calendar, to the end of my life."
"What day do you mean?"
"The day when you remembered the law of man, and forgot the law of God; the day when you broke the marriage tie, the sacred tie, by a Divorce!"
She listened--not conscious now of suspense or fear; she listened, with her whole heart in revolt against him.
"You are too cruel!" she declared. "You can feel for me, you can understand me, you can pardon me in everything else that I have done. But you judge without mercy of the one blameless act of my life, since my husband left me--the act that protected a mother in the exercise of her rights. Oh, can it be you? Can it be you?"
"It can be," he said, sighing bitterly; "and it is."
"What horrible delusion possesses you? Why do you curse the happy day, the blessed day, which saw me safe in the possession of my child?"
"For the worst and meanest of reasons," he answered--"a selfish reason. Don't suppose that I have spoken of Divorce as one who has had occasion to think of it. I have had no occasion to think of it; I don't think of it even now. I abhor it because it stands between you and me. I loathe it, I curse it because it separates us for life."
"Separates us for life? How?"
"Can you ask me?"
"Yes, I do ask you!"
He looked round him. A society of religious persons had visited the hotel, and had obtained permission to place a copy of the Bible in every room. One of those copies lay on the chimney-piece in Catherine's room. Bennydeck brought it to her, and placed it on the table near which she was sitting. He turned to the New Testament, and opened it at the Gospel of Saint Matthew. With his hand on the page, he said:
"I have done my best rightly to understand the duties of a Christian. One of those duties, as I interpret them, is to let what I believe show itself in what I do. You have seen enough of me, I hope, to know (though I have not been forward in speaking of it) that I am, to the best of my poor ability, a faithful follower of the teachings of Christ. I dare not set my own interests and my own happiness above His laws. If I suffer in obeying them as I suffer now, I must still submit. They are the laws of my life."
"Is it through me that you suffer?"
"It is through you."
"Will you tell me how?"
He had already found the chapter. His tears dropped on it as he pointed to the verse.
"Read," he answered, "what the most compassionate of all Teachers has said, in the Sermon on the Mount."
She read: "Whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery."
Another innocent woman, in her place, might have pointed to that first part of the verse, which pre-supposes the infidelity of the divorced wife, and might have asked if those words applied to her. This woman, knowing that she had lost him, knew also what she owed to herself She rose in silence, and held out her hand at parting.
He paused before he took her hand. "Can you forgive me?" he asked. She said: "I can pity you."
"Can you look back to the day of your marriage? Can you remember the words which declared the union between you and your husband to be separable only by death? Has he treated you with brutal cruelty?"
"Has he repented of his sin?"
"Ask your own conscience if there is not a worthier life for you and your child than the life that you are leading now." He waited, after that appeal to her. The silence remained unbroken. "Do not mistake me," he resumed gently. "I am not thinking of the calamity that has fallen on me in a spirit of selfish despair--I am looking to your future, and I am trying to show you the way which leads to hope. Catherine! have you no word more to say to me?"
In faint trembling tones she answered him at last: "You have left me but one word to say. Farewell!"
He drew her to him gently, and kissed her on the forehead. The agony in his face was more than she could support; she recoiled from it in horror. His last act was devoted to the tranquillity of the one woman whom he had loved. He signed to her to leave him.