East Lynne/Chapter 46
Barbara was at the seaside, and Lady Isabel was in her bed, dying. You remember the old French saying, L'homme propose, et Dieu dispose. An exemplification of it was here.
She, Lady Isabel, had consented to remain at East Lynne during Mrs. Carlyle's absence, on purpose that she might be with her children. But the object was frustrated, for Lucy and Archibald had been removed to Miss Carlyle's. It was Mr. Carlyle's arrangement. He thought the governess ought to have entire respite from all charge; and that poor governess dared not say, let them stay with me. Lady Isabel had also purposed to be safely away from East Lynne before the time came for her to die; but that time had advanced with giant strides, and the period for removal was past. She was going out as her mother had done, rapidly unexpectedly, "like the snuff of a candle." Wilson was in attendance on her mistress; Joyce remained at home.
Barbara had chosen a watering-place near, not thirty miles off, so that Mr. Carlyle went there most evenings, returning to his office in the mornings. Thus he saw little of East Lynne, paying one or two flying visits only. From the Saturday to the Wednesday in the second week, he did not come home at all, and it was in those few days that Lady Isabel had changed for the worse. On the Wednesday he was expected home to dinner and to sleep.
Joyce was in a state of frenzy—or next door to it. Lady Isabel was dying, and what would become of the ominous secret? A conviction, born of her fears, was on the girl's mind that, with death, the whole must become known; and who was to foresee what blame might not be cast upon her, by her master and mistress, for not having disclosed it? She might be accused of having been an abettor in the plot from the first! Fifty times it was in Joyce's mind to send for Miss Carlyle and tell her all.
The afternoon was fast waning, and the spirit of Lady Isabel seemed to be waning with it. Joyce was in the room in attendance upon her. She had been in a fainting state all day, but felt better now. She was partially raised in bed by pillows, a white Cashmere shawl over her shoulders, her nightcap off, to allow as much air as possible to come to her, and the windows stood open.
Footsteps sounded on the gravel in the quiet stillness of the summer air. They penetrated even to her ear, for all her faculties were keen yet. Beloved footsteps; and a tinge of hectic rose to her cheeks. Joyce, who stood at the window, glanced out. It was Mr. Carlyle.
"Joyce!" came forth a cry from the bed, sharp and eager.
Joyce turned round. "My lady?"
"I should die happily if I might see him."
"See him!" uttered Joyce, doubting her own ears. "My lady! See him! Mr. Carlyle!"
"What can it signify? I am already as one dead. Should I ask it or wish it, think you, in rude life? The yearning has been upon me for days Joyce; it is keeping death away."
"It could not be, my lady," was the decisive answer. "It must not be. It is as a thing impossible."
Lady Isabel burst into tears. "I can't die for the trouble," she wailed. "You keep my children from me. They must not come, you say, lest I should betray myself. Now you would keep my husband. Joyce, Joyce, let me see him!"
Her husband! Poor thing! Joyce was in a maze of distress, though not the less firm. Her eyes were wet with tears; but she believed she should be infringing her allegiance to her mistress did she bring Mr. Carlyle to the presence of his former wife; altogether it might be productive of nothing but confusion.
A knock at the chamber door. Joyce called out, "Come in." The two maids, Hannah and Sarah, were alone in the habit of coming to the room, and neither of them had ever known Madame Vine as Lady Isabel. Sarah put in her head.
"Master wants you, Miss Joyce."
"He is in the dining-room. I have just taken down Master Arthur to him."
Mr. Carlyle had got "Master Arthur" on his shoulder when Joyce entered. Master Arthur was decidedly given to noise and rebellion, and was already, as Wilson expressed it, "sturdy upon his pins."
"How is Madame Vine, Joyce?"
Joyce scarcely knew how to answer. But she did not dare to equivocate as to her precarious state. And where the use, when a few hours would probably see the end of it?
"She is very ill, indeed, sir."
"Sir, I fear she is dying."
Mr. Carlyle, in his consternation, put down Arthur. "Dying!"
"I hardly think she will last till morning, sir!"
"Why, what has killed her?" he uttered in amazement.
Joyce did not answer. She looked pale and confused.
"Have you had Dr. Martin?"
"Oh, no, sir. It would be of no use."
"No use!" repeated Mr. Carlyle, in a sharp accent. "Is that the way to treat dying people? Assume it is of no use to send for advice, and so quietly let them die! If Madame Vine is as ill as you say, a telegraphic message must be sent off at once. I had better see her," he cried, moving to the door.
Joyce, in her perplexity, dared to place her back against it, preventing his egress. "Oh, master! I beg your pardon, but—it would not be right. Please, sir, do not think of going into her room!"
Mr. Carlyle thought Joyce was taken with a fit of prudery. "Why can't I go in?" he asked.
"Mrs. Carlyle would not like it, sir," stammered Joyce, her cheeks scarlet now.
Mr. Carlyle stared at her. "Some of you take up odd ideas," he cried. "In Mrs. Carlyle's absence, it is necessary that some one should see her! Let a lady die in my house, and never see after her! You are out of your senses, Joyce. I shall go in after dinner; so prepare Madame Vine."
The dinner was being brought in then. Joyce, feeling like one in a nervous attack, picked up Arthur and carried him to Sarah in the nursery. What on earth was she to do?
Scarcely had Mr. Carlyle begun his dinner, when his sister entered. Some grievance had arisen between her and the tenants of certain houses of hers, and she was bringing the dispute to him. Before he would hear it, he begged her to go up to Madame Vine, telling her what Joyce had said of her state.
"Dying!" exclaimed Miss Corny, in disbelieving derision. "That Joyce has been more like a simpleton lately than like herself. I can't think what has come to the woman."
She took off her bonnet and mantle, and laid them on a chair, gave a twitch or two to her cap, as she surveyed it in the pier-glass, and went upstairs. Joyce answered her knock at the invalid's door; and Joyce, when she saw who it was, turned as white as any sheet.
"Oh, ma'am, you must not come in!" she blundered out, in her confusion and fear, as she put herself right in the doorway.
"Who is to keep me out?" demanded Miss Carlyle, after a pause of surprise, her tone of quiet power. "Move away, girl. Joyce, I think your brain must be softening. What will you try at next?"
Joyce was powerless, both in right and strength, and she knew it. She knew there was no help—that Miss Carlyle would and must enter. She stood aside, shivering, and passed out of the room as soon as Miss Carlyle was within it.
Ah! there could no longer be concealment now! There she was, her pale face lying against the pillow, free from its disguising trappings. The band of gray velvet, the spectacles, the wraps for the throat and chin, the huge cap, all were gone. It was the face of Lady Isabel; changed, certainly, very, very much; but still hers. The silvered hair fell on either side of her face, like the silky curls had once fallen; the sweet, sad eyes were the eyes of yore.
"Mercy be good to us!" uttered Miss Carlyle.
They remained gazing at each other, both panting with emotion; yes, even Miss Carlyle. Though a wild suspicion had once crossed her brain that Madame Vine might be Lady Isabel, it had died away again, from the sheer improbability of the thing, as much as from the convincing proofs offered by Lord Mount Severn. Not but what Miss Carlyle had borne in mind the suspicion, and had been fond of tracing the likeness in Madame Vine's face.
"How could you dare come back here!" she abruptly asked, her tone of sad, soft wailing, not one of reproach.
Lady Isabel humbly crossed her attenuated hands upon her chest. "My children," she whispered. "How could I stay away from them? Have pity, Miss Carlyle! Don't reproach me. I am on my way to God, to answer for all my sins and sorrows."
"I do not reproach you," said Miss Carlyle.
"I am so glad to go," she continued to murmur, her eyes full of tears. "Jesus did not come, you know, to save the good like you; He came for the sake of us poor sinners. I tried to take up my cross, as He bade us, and bear it bravely for His sake; but its weight has killed me."
The good like you! Humbly, meekly, deferentially was it expressed, in all good faith and trust, as though Miss Corny was a sort of upper angel. Somehow the words grated on Miss Corny's ear: grated fiercely on her conscience. It came into her mind, then, as she stood there, that the harsh religion that she had through life professed, was not the religion that would best bring peace to her dying bed.
"Child," said she, drawing near to and leaning over Lady Isabel, "had I anything to do with sending you from East Lynne?"
Lady Isabel shook her head and cast down her gaze, as she whispered: "You did not send me; you did not help to send me. I was not very happy with you, but that was not the cause—of my going away. Forgive me, Miss Carlyle, forgive me!"
"Thank God!" inwardly breathed Miss Carlyle. "Forgive me," she said, aloud and in agitation, touching her hand. "I could have made your home happier, and I wish I had done it. I have wished it ever since you left it."
Lady Isabel drew the hand in hers. "I want to see Archibald," she whispered, going back, in thought, to the old time and the old name. "I have prayed Joyce to bring him to me, and she will not. Only for a minute! Just to hear him say that he forgives me! What can it matter, now that I am as one lost to the world? I should die easier."
Upon what impulse or grounds Miss Carlyle saw fit to accede to the request, cannot be told. Probably she did not choose to refuse a death-bed prayer; possibly she reasoned, as did Lady Isabel—what could it matter? She went to the door. Joyce was in the corridor, leaning against the wall, her apron up to her eyes. Miss Carlyle beckoned to her.
"How long have you known of this?"
"Since that night in the spring, when there was an alarm of fire. I saw her then, with nothing on her face, and knew her; though, at the first moment, I thought it was her ghost. Ma'am, I have just gone about since, like a ghost myself from fear."
"Go and request your master to come up to me."
"Oh, ma'am! Will it be well to tell him?" remonstrated Joyce. "Well that he should see her?"
"Go and request your master to come to me," unequivocally repeated Miss Carlyle. "Are you mistress, Joyce, or am I?"
Joyce went down and brought Mr. Carlyle up from the dinner-table.
"Is Madame Vine worse, Cornelia? Will she see me?"
"She wishes to see you."
Miss Carlyle opened the door as she spoke. He motioned her to pass in first. "No," she said, "you had better see her alone."
He was going in when Joyce caught his arm. "Master! Master! You ought to be prepared. Ma'am, won't you tell him?"
He looked at them, thinking they must be moonstruck, for their conduct seemed inexplicable. Both were in evident agitation, an emotion Miss Carlyle was not given to. Her face and lips were twitching, but she kept a studied silence. Mr. Carlyle knit his brow and went into the chamber. They shut him in.
He walked gently at once to the bed, in his straightforward manner.
"I am grieved, Madame Vine——"
The words faltered on his tongue. He was a man as little given to show emotion as man can well be. Did he think, as Joyce had once done, that it was a ghost he saw? Certain it is that his face and lips turned the hue of death, and he backed a few steps from the bed. The falling hair, the sweet, mournful eyes, the hectic which his presence brought to her cheeks, told too plainly of the Lady Isabel.
She put out her trembling hand. She caught him ere he had drawn quite beyond her reach. He looked at her, he looked round the room, as does one awaking from a dream.
"I could not die without your forgiveness," she murmured, her eyes falling before him as she thought of her past. "Do you turn from me? Bear with me a little minute! Only say you forgive me, and I shall die in peace!"
"Isabel?" he spoke, not knowing in the least what he said. "Are you—are you—were you Madame Vine?"
"Oh, forgive—forgive me! I did not die. I got well from the accident, but it changed me dreadfully. Nobody knew me, and I came here as Madame Vine. I could not stay away, Archibald, forgive me!"
His mind was in a whirl, his ideas had gone wool-gathering. The first clear thought that came thumping through his brain was, that he must be a man of two wives. She noticed his perplexed silence.
"I could not stay away from you and my children. The longing for you was killing me," she reiterated, wildly, like one talking in a fever. "I never knew a moment's peace after the mad act I was guilty of, in quitting you. Not an hour had I departed when my repentance set in; and even then I would have retraced and come back, but I did not know how. See what it has done for me!" tossing up her gray hair, holding out her attenuated wrists. "Oh, forgive—forgive me! My sin was great, but my punishment was greater. It has been as one long scene of mortal agony."
"Why did you go?" asked Mr. Carlyle.
"Did you not know?"
"No. It has always been a mystery to me."
"I went out of love for you."
A shade of disdain crossed his lips. She was equivocating to him on her death-bed.
"Do not look in that way," she panted. "My strength is nearly gone—you must perceive that it is—and I do not, perhaps, express myself clearly. I loved you dearly, and I grew suspicious of you. I thought you were false and deceitful to me; that your love was all given to another; and in my sore jealousy, I listened to the temptings of that bad man, who whispered to me of revenge. It was not so, was it?"
Mr. Carlyle had regained his calmness, outwardly, at any rate. He stood by the side of the bed, looking down upon her, his arms crossed upon his chest, and his noble form raised to its full height.
"Was it so?" she feverishly repeated.
"Can you ask it, knowing me as you did then, as you must have known me since? I never was false to you in thought, in word, or in deed."
"Oh, Archibald, I was mad—I was mad! I could not have done it in anything but madness. Surely you will forget and forgive!"
"I cannot forget. I have already forgiven!"
"Try and forget the dreadful time that has passed since that night!" she continued, the tears falling on her cheeks, as she held up to him one of her poor hot hands. "Let your thoughts go back to the days when you first knew me; when I was here, Isabel Vane, a happy girl with my father. At times I have lost myself in a moment's happiness in thinking of it. Do you remember how you grew to love me, though you thought you might not tell it to me—and how gentle you were with me, when papa died—and the hundred pound note? Do you remember coming to Castle Marling?—and my promise to be your wife—and the first kiss you left upon my lips? And, oh, Archibald! Do you remember the loving days after I was your wife—how happy we were with each other? Do you remember when Lucy was born, we thought I should have died; and your joy, your thankfulness that God restored me? Do you remember all this?"
Aye. He did remember it. He took the poor hand into his, and unconsciously played with its wasted fingers.
"Have you any reproach to cast to me?" he gently said, bending his head a little.
"Reproach to you! To you, who must be almost without reproach in the sight of Heaven! You, who were everlasting to me—ever anxious for my welfare! When I think of what you were, and are, and how I quitted you, I could sink into the earth with remorse and shame. My own sin, I have surely expiated; I cannot expiate the shame I entailed upon you, and upon our children."
Never. He felt it as keenly now as he had felt it then.
"Think what it has been for me!" she resumed, and he was obliged to bend his ear to catch her gradually weakening tones. "To live in this house with your wife—to see your love for her—to watch the envied caresses that once were mine! I never loved you so passionately as I have done since I lost you. Think what it was to watch William's decaying strength; to be alone with him in his dying hour, and not to be able to say he is my child as well as yours! When he lay dead, and the news went forth to the household, it was her petty grief you soothed, not mine, his mother's. God alone knows how I have lived through it all; it as been to me as the bitterness of death."
"Why did you come back?" was the response of Mr. Carlyle.
"I have told you. I could not live, wanting you and my children."
"It was wrong; wrong in all ways."
"Wickedly wrong. You cannot think worse of it than I have done. But the consequences and the punishment would be mine alone, as long as I guarded against discovery. I never thought to stop here to die; but death seems to have come on me with a leap, like it came to my mother."
A pause of labored hard breathing. Mr. Carlyle did not interrupt it.
"All wrong, all wrong," she resumed; "this interview with you, among the rest. And yet—I hardly know; it cannot hurt the new ties you have formed, for I am as one dead now to this world, hovering on the brink of the next. But you were my husband, Archibald; and, the last few days, I have longed for your forgiveness with a fevered longing. Oh! that the past could be blotted out! That I could wake up and find it but a hideous dream; that I were here as in old days, in health and happiness, your ever loving wife. Do you wish it, that the dark past had never had place?"
She put the question in a sharp, eager tone, gazing up to him with an anxious gaze, as though the answer must be one of life or death.
"For your sake I wish it." Calm enough were the words spoken; and her eyes fell again, and a deep sigh came forth.
"I am going to William. But Lucy and Archibald will be left. Oh, do you never be unkind to them! I pray you, visit not their mother's sin upon their heads! Do not in your love for your later children, lose your love for them!"
"Have you seen anything in my conduct that could give rise to fears of this?" he returned, reproach mingled in his sad tone. "The children are dear to me, as you once were."
"As I once was. Aye, and as I might have been now."
"Indeed you might," he answered, with emotion. "The fault was not mine."
"Archibald, I am on the very threshold of the next world. Will you not bless me—will you not say a word of love to me before I pass it! Let what I am, I say, be blotted for the moment from your memory; think of me, if you can, as the innocent, timid child whom you made your wife. Only a word of love. My heart is breaking for it."
He leaned over her, he pushed aside the hair from her brow with his gentle hand, his tears dropping on her face. "You nearly broke mine, when you left me, Isabel," he whispered.
"May God bless you, and take you to His rest in Heaven! May He so deal with me, as I now fully and freely forgive you."
What was he about to do? Lower and lower bent his head, until his breath nearly mingled with hers. To kiss her? He best knew. But, suddenly, his face grew red with a scarlet flush, and he lifted it again. Did the form of one, then in a felon's cell at Lynneborough, thrust itself before him, or that of his absent and unconscious wife?
"To His rest in Heaven," she murmured, in the hollow tones of the departing. "Yes, yes I know that God had forgiven me. Oh, what a struggle it has been! Nothing but bad feelings, rebellion, and sorrow, and repining, for a long while after I came back here, but Jesus prayed for me, and helped me, and you know how merciful He is to the weary and heavy-laden. We shall meet again, Archibald, and live together forever and ever. But for that great hope I could hardly die. William said mamma would be on the banks of the river, looking out for him; but it is William who is looking for me."
Mr. Carlyle released one of his hands; she had taken them both; and with his own white handkerchief, wiped the death-dew from her forehead.
"It is no sin to anticipate it, Archibald, for there will be no marrying or giving in marriage in Heaven: Christ said so. Though we do not know how it will be, my sin will be remembered no more there, and we shall be together with our children forever and forever. Keep a little corner in your heart for your poor lost Isabel."
"Yes, yes," he whispered.
"Are you leaving me?" she uttered, in a wild tone of pain.
"You are growing faint, I perceive, I must call assistance."
"Farewell, then; farewell, until eternity," she sighed, the tears raining from her eyes. "It is death, I think, not faintness. Oh! but it is hard to part! Farewell, farewell my once dear husband!"
She raised her head from the pillow, excitement giving her strength; she clung to his arm; she lifted her face in its sad yearning. Mr. Carlyle laid her tenderly down again, and suffered his wet cheek to rest upon hers.
She followed him with her eyes as he retreated, and watched him from the room: then turned her face to the wall. "It is over. Only God now."
Mr. Carlyle took an instant's counsel with himself, stopping at the head of the stairs to do it. Joyce, in obedience to a sign from him, had already gone into the sick-chamber: his sister was standing at the door.
She followed him down to the dining-room.
"You will remain here to-night? With her?"
"Do you suppose I shouldn't?" crossly responded Miss Corny; "where are you off to now?"
"To the telegraph office, at present. To send for Lord Mount Severn."
"What good can he do?"
"None. But I shall send for him."
"Can't one of the servants go just as well as you? You have not finished your dinner; hardly begun it."
He turned his eyes on the dinner-table in a mechanical sort of way, his mind wholly preoccupied, made some remark in answer, which Miss Corny did not catch, and went out.
On his return his sister met him in the hall, drew him inside the nearest room, and closed the door. Lady Isabel was dead. Had been dead about ten minutes.
"She never spoke after you left her, Archibald. There was a slight struggle at the last, a fighting for breath, otherwise she went off quite peacefully. I felt sure, when I first saw her this afternoon, that she could not last till midnight."