The Great Secret/Chapter 32

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In a chamber plainly yet comfortably enough furnished sat a woman, grey-tressed and haggard with passion and care more than with the lapse of years. She was one of the many self-torturers of earth—the cold, grey, implacable and melancholy believers in a demon god. This was Beatrice, the woman who had divorced her husband, Philip Mortlake, and now lived without a name, a hope, a joy.

She had been beautiful once, and still bore traces of that former beauty about her—dark, swarthy and fateful, with pronounced features and sombre brown, heavily-lidded eyes. Those daughters of Eve who are blue-eyed may be fickle, capricious, and not over earnest in what they do or say, but they seldom plunge their men into such hells of misery as those fiercely jealous, implacable and unapproachable tawny martyrs do, who follow up an idea like a Red Indian on the trail, and seldom weep, but never forgive. These are the women whose loves are slight, but their hatreds fierce; who raise up a fancied wrong into an imperishable pyramid by patient industry, and who gloat on their pyramid growing, stone by stone, as if it were a favourite child; who regard forgiveness as a weakness which is contemptible, and regret as an insult to their hellish pride. Jehovah, the jealous and vengeful, is the only possible God of their idolatry. The blue-eyed, fair-haired ones are fond of mirth. No woman ever yet was a humorist, yet some can appreciate humour, and it is the sanguine, blue-eyed ones who do. They may laugh, and vow, and forswear their vows, yet they can weep, and wonder at misery, and, if it lies in their power, banish it by smiles and laughter. The swarthy and melancholy woman keeps her vows, but she has no joy and gives no pleasure in them. She is dark and morbid Fate, whereas the other is tender, inconstant Earth Love, that stays but a night and a day.

She had been beautiful once, and, for a brief space, stoically affectionate and trusting, but her very love had bred snakes of suspicion in her heart. The blessings of the Church were not sufficient to sanctify her transient warmth of feelings. Her stoical nature demanded sacrifices, as the bilious temperament must have brown bread and water in preference to wine and nourishing food. If she partook of pleasure, it was to snatch at it remorsefully and hastily, and then to suffer from the surfeit. She was what the modern woman would call intense, in her morbid awakings and chronic wretchedness.

The Bible lay open before her, for she sat at a table. Its pages opened naturally at the portions she had read mostly from and reverted to, not as a consolation, but rather as caviare to whet her savage instincts. She had dreamt and brooded so long on the fabricless monsters of her fancied wrongs, that the God of vengeance was her only consolation. Like the royal singer and sinner, she rung the changes of the one fierce and bitter desire and cry of her angry spirit: "Revenge! revenge!"

"The Lord reigneth, let the people tremble.

"Let God arise; let his enemies be scattered.

"Break their teeth, Oh God, in their mouths.

"Let them melt away as water.

"Let death seize upon them, and let them go quick down into hell."

She was reading at random from the Psalms of David—the man of mad impulse, subtle passion and ruthless violence, who never resisted a desire nor forgave a foe. Her dark eyes glowed luridly as she fixed them now on the evil words of hatred, now on the moonlit sky, which bathed the great city in its silvery lustre.

Her window was open, for it was a hot and close night in August, and the liar vest moon was shining full and mellow in the upper space. From her window, which was high up on the Lambeth side of the Thames, she could see down a narrow street the river with the hay-laden barges moored at the wharf, and beyond that the silver-burnished river, so pregnant with past memories, rolling down to the sea. On the other side were warehouses and wharves, with St Paul's dome looming up misty and grand.

She had fixed upon this humble room as a lodging, partly because of that picture, partly because she wished to know more about the London poor, for she was charitable and tender towards the outside sufferers, if warped in judgment and miserable. She did not gain much love by her efforts, for her manners were harsh and fierce, and her hatred of men prejudiced the women against her. They would rather have had a less Onerous but lighter-hearted sinner going about them than such a rigid and vindictive saint, who had no sympathy with the frailties of humanity.

She was thinking about her divorced husband tonight, for she never ceased to think about him—the man she had once loved, as far as she was capable of love. Affection to her meant always a misery and a reproach, the dead more to be considered than the living, and yesterday a better thing than to-day. She was the woman who ever casts her glances backwards, and hugged regret as a greater treasure than possession.

She was morbidly and savagely restless to-night, pacing the narrow confines of that chamber as a tigress paces its cage; now looking from her window with a muttered imprecation against the beauty and stillness of the night, the brightness of the moon on the river, the levity and laughter of those poverty-stricken and hard-worked women who lived under her, who could be happy in spite of their miserable surroundings; now turning over the pages of that open Book with feverish fingers to find some passage suitable to her frame of mind.

She had done right to liberate herself from that bondage of iniquity, to repudiate and divorce her husband, who had so grievously wronged her—how, she could not now definitely say. Yet he must have done so, to fill her with the savage feelings which controlled her.

The room and the atmosphere were clear to her eyes. She felt alone and lonely, as she had been for long and as she would be while life remained, for she could not love again. She no longer had the capability of enjoyment, therefore to her all pleasure was a snare and a delusion.

"Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!" she cried, as she flung herself on her knees and tried to pray.

Yet although she could not see with her blinded eyes, she was environed with vitality and life, and the chamber was crammed with active intelligences. Round her were a crowd of cold, sad and loveless spirits, an ancestral line of implacable and embittered spectres—wives who had hated their husbands, men who had suspected and loathed their wives, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, with fathers and mothers who had in life regarded those bound to them with reasonless and undying abhorrence—too cold for vice, they were all virtuous as she was, with the pitiless virtue that crushed out charity with love.

They whispered constantly to her racked heart and throbbing brain, pointing with lean fingers to the bitter passages, leaving her not one instant of peace—spirits that had been tormented during their earth pilgrimage, and still remained on earth to pour their malign poison into the mortal and anguished spirits whom they influenced.

On the open pages hung that dense cloud of black and snake-like activity, the evil wishes and thoughts of so many beings who had lived and died creating those morbid conceptions. They were hideous and filmy monstrosities, with beastly heads and formless bodies, like the emanations of a putrid pond. Interlaced and coweringly they writhed about, with gaping mouths and slimy tendrils, so thick as they floated and hung amongst the space that they seemed like a dense black fog to the spiritualised vision.

This foul and icy living fog filled the chamber and covered both Bible and woman, spreading through the open window and over the city till London seemed shrouded with it, although, to the eyes of the woman, the night seemed warm and the sky clear.

Amid this evil darkness and chilly horror two spirits fought and strove valiantly to drive back these loveless and gloomy spirits, to clear the atmosphere from this vile fog, and impress the victim with better thoughts. They had struggled long to gain the victory; two loving spirits against a host of hatreds. They were Adela and Philip at their appointed work, praying for strength, yet soul-sick and wearied with their futile efforts.

As the woman approached her Bible to read, those lean and cold spectres moved her eyes and fingers to those passages which were likely to add to her own bitter thoughts, while Adela pointed to and whispered the words of Hope, Faith and Charity, and while she did this Philip pushed with all his strength to keep back the pressing crowd.

"He has rewarded me evil for good, and hatred for my love.

"Set thou a wicked man over him, and let Satan stand at his right hand.

"When he shall be judged, let him be condemned, and let his prayars become sin.

"Let his days be few and another take his office.

"Let the extortioner catch all that he hath, and let the strangers spoil his labour.

"Let there be none to extend mercy unto him.

"Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the Lord, and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out."

The fiendish suggesters had made her open the Book at the hundred and ninth Psalm, that horrible appeal of the vindictive savage,—

"For I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me.

"I am gone like a shadow when it declineth: I am tossed up and down like the locust."

Adela turned the sacred page rapidly, and suggested to the hot and fevered eyes,—

"The works of the Lord are great.

"He is honourable and glorious, and His righteousness endureth for ever.

"The Lord is gracious and full of compassion.

"He raiseth the poor out of the dust.

"Gracious is the Lord, and righteous: yea, our God is merciful.

"Oh give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, because His mercy endureth for ever.

"Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered."

"What can I believe, what shall I do?" moaned the poor, spirit-fought-over woman, as she flung herself on her knees again, turning the leaves over, as she thought, at random, seeking for a sign, yet guided by the light fingers of Adela.

"Ye judge after the flesh, I judge no man.

"Judge not that ye be not judged.

"Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

"Blessed are the peacemakers : for they shall be called the children of God.

"Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art in the way with him.

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

"But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil, but whosoever smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

"Thou hast heard that it hath been said, Thou shall love thy neighbour and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you."

As the woman read these words, the evil ones fell back from her for a time, while the cloud of darkness lifted for a little. Then Philip paused to take breath, while Adela murmured,—

"Oh, Philip, I am so weary; it seems so long, so hopeless."

As she moaned this the dark cloud of evil conceptions suddenly parted, as if cleft in two, and next instant Apollonius stood beside them.

"You have both done much, although it appears so little. Let me aid you with this poor soul, at present stranded on the flinty rocks of that narrow and hopeless faith. Yes, it is a difficult task to push back and disarm those other lost spirits who are drawn here by the bonds of blood, harder to liberate such spirits than to lift the most degraded of criminals, because he knows that he has done wrong, while she and they still think that they have done right, that their cold and loveless morality is good, and their vindictive wrath just."

"Oh, friend, it seemed so hopeless before you came; we can do so little."

"It requires a mortal's strength; therefore I have come, for I still retain my mortal frame."

"But will she not see you, and resent your presence? She is very proud and unapproachable," said Philip. To which the sage replied,— "No, she cannot see me any more than she can you or the black swarm that environ and possess her. Stand near me while I drive the evil from her."

The woman was now lying back in her chair, exhausted as Adela and Philip were, while the gloomy spirits had drawn back at the new presence with lowering brows; the black filmy cloud also had risen to. the ceiling, and seemed to cling there like smoke.

The sage approached the woman, with Philip and Adela on each side of him, and laying his hands upon her head, after a softly uttered prayer, cried out,—

"Come forth, thou unclean brood!"

At the command, so sternly uttered, the woman sprang from her chair, and uttering a loud scream, fell to the ground, writhing and frothing at the mouth as in a fit; then, while she still muttered and struggled, from her lips burst a thick black mass that poured upon the floor like ink, and then rose and floated up to the ceiling in smoke-like eddies, dragons, snakes, and other horrible monsters. As they left her, her struggles gradually ceased, until at last she lay passive and lifeless, with closed lids and pallid cheeks.

"You can leave her now for a little time, for she is freed from the evil influences that have poisoned her life, those malignant enemies of the human race. Go and rest; and while you are gone I will watch over her for you. But the victory is not yet gained, for the enemies will try again to get possession. Only time and your united efforts will give her the complete liberty. Go, get strength, and come again, for there is much to do still on earth."

Then Philip, obedient to the advice of the sage, took his wearied love in his arms, and with a tender and pitying glance at the still and suffering face of her who had been his wife, passed away from that gruesome darkness into the light.