Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Markham's revenge
“Consequences are unpitying.”—George Eliot.
“Clara’s sister in India!” muttered Markham.
“That’s Colonel Vincent’s wife!” exclaimed his companion. “Isn’t she handsome? Everybody’s mad about her. But what’s the matter, Markham? you positively shiver in this fiery furnace. Ague, my boy?”
“No, it’s constitutional.”
“Would you like to be introduced?”
“After this dance. You find a partner; I’ll sit down.”
The scene was quite novel to Markham. An English ball with oriental accessories; active dancing beneath the flap of the punkas, to the music of a regimental-band of natives, native servants flitting about, two or three native gentlemen in rich costumes, with an affectation of European manners on the surface, and oriental depreciation of women in their sensual souls, gazing in wonderment at the activity of the dancers. But the scene which was called up in Markham’s mind by the sight of Mrs. Vincent was far away in England six years back. A summer moon shining through dark poplars, which shadowed a garden-walk; heavy jessamine and sickly in the sultry evening, then the lightest footsteps, but quite audible to his anxious ears—promises, and vows, and passionate utterance, sorrow in the present, but hope in the future, and then the interview sternly broken in upon with angry words.
“Now, Markham, come and be introduced.”
“Thank you, some other time.”
“But I’ve asked her, and she says she will be very happy to make your acquaintance.”
Markham was forced to acquiesce.
There was a circle of admirers around the queen of the ball.
“Who’s that native?” exclaimed Markham to his companion. “I’d fell a man to the ground who stared at a woman like that.”
“Bless you that’s the Rajah of ——, he’s the best fellow in the world—gives such jolly hunting parties; quite a marvel in the way of civilisation; reads all sorts of poetry; knows Tom Moore by heart.”
“But his cursed stare?”
“Pooh! it’s the way these chaps have. Nobody’s speaking to her now. Come along.”
“Mr. Markham—Mrs. Vincent.”
He stood before her perfectly self-possessed, but she was evidently taken by surprise; his name must have escaped her when the introduction was requested.
“This is unexpected,—an old friend!” she exclaimed. Then in a whisper, “an old friend, Mr. Markham, notwithstanding the past—Colonel, an old friend from England!” and she introduced Markham to her husband.
“Mr. Markham!” said the Colonel. “I have much honour—the engineer of the —— Line?”
“The same, sir.”
The Colonel dabbled in speculation; the Colonel was delighted to make Markham’s acquaintance; his poor house was at Markham’s service while he remained at the station. The Colonel drew Markham out of the circle to have some special conversation on railway topics; the circle closed again to listen to Mrs. Vincent’s brilliant sallies and repartee, but she had become silent and pensive.
When she had heard of Markham last, Markham had gone to Canada. Why in the countless chances of life should he and she meet at this time in India? Why should the error of her life have been thus brought vividly before her? Was this a monition to repentance? Yet why repentance at this particular season?—repentance timing itself with the newest valse from England and the whirl of the dancers. How the heaviness and depression of the mind darkens passing events! The vague rumours of that dreadful affair at Meerut—was that merely an isolated occurrence arising out of special circumstances? The Colonel said so,—the Colonel and all the officers were fully confident in the devotion and loyalty of the regiment, she had believed them implicitly; but now her mind was filled with terrible doubt. What if these natives should prove utterly false? Why she and all around her were treading on smouldering fire. She must speak to the Colonel; where was he? She raised her eyes, the circle which had been round her gradually dispersed, all, save one, that Rajah of ——. She was perfectly accustomed to that repulsive mystery of expression which marks the oriental type; but when his eyes chanced to meet hers, there was something so terribly repulsive in the gaze that she trembled and turned pale, in another moment deep crimson mantled her countenance; she left her seat and hurried to the Colonel who was still standing talking to Markham. Placing her arm in his, she whispered:
“Let us go home now.”
“It’s early yet, my love.”
The Colonel was deep in the share-market, and anxious for further conversation with Markham.
“But I don’t feel quite well, pray come. Good night, Mr. Markham, we shall meet again soon.”
“Certainly,” said the Colonel, “Mr. Markham has promised to dine with us to-morrow.”
Markham bowed . . . . . .
As it will be at the end of the world, so it was at many of those stations in India. The sun rose on the ordered strength of human system, and behold! all that men trusted in and clung to, shrunk in a moment from their grasp.
They did meet again very soon, Mrs. Vincent and Markham,—a speedy transition from the amenities of society to grim strife for life and death—dragged from her own home; but he had rescued her, driven her—clinging desperately to him—through a hundred dangers.
Whither now? Bewildered by unknown roads, beneath a burning sun and fiery gusts of parching wind, the hard-held rein growing looser and looser in the hand. Still she kept urging him to hurry on—on, from a fear worse than death that possessed her soul.
But the brave horse, wounded and worn out, fell at last.
This flight from the land of Death, so terribly real, yet growing more and more into the semblance of a frightful dream—the clogged effort to escape, and the sense of an irresistible doom creeping slowly onwards.
There was a native hut near the road. It appeared tenantless. He half carried her—half dragged her to it. The place was quite bare, save some rough planking at one end which formed a rude couch. It afforded shelter from the sun, not from the heat, still it gave them breathing-time.
Oh that fearful heat! though she had lived three years in India, she never before felt its full force untempered by the appliances of man.
Neither spoke for awhile. Profound silence reigned around them—silence more awful than the din and clamour from which they had fled. Inaction, more terrible than the sharp struggle that had saved them from death. Inaction, which allowed the mind to realise silence—as it were Heaven hushed for a last confession and prayer.
The chances were terribly against escape. Markham saw that clearly, and yet even to surprise, he had never in his life known his mind more perfectly composed and capable of exact thought. He was constitutionally brave, and his mental powers were never fully developed until he stood face to face with difficulty. Far different her condition. Her husband had just fallen in his brave attempt to appeal to the men, but in the terror of the present there was no room for that sorrow in her mind. Life or death? Life, was to fall alive into the rebels’ hands; Death, was to die unforgiven by those she had wronged most.
“Markham, have you any ammunition left?”
“We must give up all hopes of resistance against numbers,” he replied quietly.
“But the ammunition?”
“Only one barrel loaded! If more than three attack us I have determined to throw the pistol away. Perhaps I should act differently were I alone; but it would only exasperate them against you.”
“One barrel loaded!” she murmured—then was silent. A terrible resolution was forming in her mind.
She looked steadfastly at him. “Is there any hope of escape, Markham?”
“Very little hope, if we are pursued.”
“How calm you are, Markham—I’m—”
“Do you think my life has been so very happy, Pauline, that I should be quite unnerved by the approach of death?”
“Does that old affection for my sister linger yet? I fancied you were so ambitious”
“It formed the very base of my ambition. I have worked since, because there is a sense of power in me which urges me on, but I have worked careless of reward and honour.”
“Can you forgive her, Markham?”
“I have forgiven her since I entered this hut.”
“Oh! Markham, at this last hour, can you forgive me also?” She flung herself at his feet. “I induced her to marry that man.”
“You had every right, as her sister, fairly to advise. The blame was hers in yielding.”
“Markham, the blame was mine—I deceived her—kill me, but I must speak now. I was horribly tempted. Our family was very poor for the station we held. That rich man loved her, and if she married him it opened a path of affluence to us all. And you were poor and unknown then. My father was fearfully involved—but God forbid! I should try to hide my guilt. I was cursed with the thirst for affluence and worldly position.”
“But those letters I wrote her—they were placed in a secret spot known to us alone.”
“Markham—I tracked her there—Oh, mercy!—”
An exulting yell outside showed that the pursuers had discovered the buggy and dead horse.
She fell back terror-stricken, but he drew her forward, holding her in the grasp of a vice.
“Quick with your confession!”
“I took the letters away one by one—we urged her to consent to the addresses of Mr. Manson—”
“But she refused steadfastly. At last she did find a letter there—”
“No—a letter from you which said the engagement must cease.”
He let her fall from his grasp. The calm of his soul was gone. “My God! to die now, and for Clara never to know the truth.”
Terror at the approaching danger overcame all her other feelings. Fascinated, she crawled up to the window of the hovel, and gazed out. She saw, even at the distance, the expression on that countenance which had caused her such horror the night before. In a minute or two more their refuge would be discovered.
“I dare not ask your forgiveness, Markham, but grant me one prayer. Life to me is more frightful than death. When they come”—she pointed significantly to the revolver. “I never fired a pistol in my life; my own hand might fail me at the last.”
He was silent.
“As you hope for salvation hereafter.”
“What, take vengeance with my own hand?”
“No, Markham, the act would be the token of your forgiveness. Swear!” she cried, in an agony of supplication, “and then I can pray in peace.”
“I swear!” said Markham.
It was a terrible effort, but he conquered in the end, and he spoke the full truth and purpose of his heart, when he uttered in a low firm tone, “Pauline, I forgive you.”
She raised her head for a moment, and pressed his hand to her lips. “Then God will forgive me, I am absolved from my guilt. I can die in peace.” She bent her head again in prayer.
Markham had become quite calm again. He carefully examined the loaded barrel: with a firm hand he raised the hammer and gently lowered it, so as to press the cap more securely on the nipple.
And they waited the end in peace.
“You have forgiven me, Markham!”
The coast of England was in sight. From the time they left that hovel, rescued by a body of irregular cavalry, through their slow and dangerous journey down to Ualcutta—through all the dull monotony of the long sea voyage—he had never referred to her confession. It was this silence which oppressed her; it would have been so much more endurable to have talked upon the subject. She often tried to lead the conversation up to the point, but he invariably turned it off, and until the present moment she had not found courage to approach it directly.
Yet she knew full well what he felt.
In long watchings beside his bed, through that dangerous fever which he had at Calcutta—she had often heard him, in the intensity of the delirium, cry her sister’s name, till the word smote her like a sharp sword. One evening, as she stood before him, he had started up in his bed, and gazing wildly in her face, and clasping her hands with his burning grasp, he had uttered in incoherent words his joy that Clara had come back to him at last.
This was the violent upheaving of nature pouring forth the deep feelings of the heart like molten lava; but with returning strength came proud endurance, beneath which those feelings were hidden away.
She would sit for hours and watch him in his fitful sleep. She knew he must always hate her, yet she liked to feel that he rested in her power as a helpless child. The vital energy was wasted from his face; the strong arm she had clung to in that terrible flight was very weak and purposeless; the hands were nerveless which had freed her from the ruffian’s grasp;—and yet he looked so noble in his weakness.
What was this feeling at her heart?
Was it conscience prompting her to make the fullest reparation for the past?
She felt that was not the true reply; and then she would start in terror from his bedside. The thought was so fearful. What if Love should be his own avenger?
The principle her needy parents had taught her in her youth—that love was a fiction, marriage a result of worldly calculation—was growing into an utter falsehood. It had all seemed very true when she made the excellent match which had been so cleverly devised for her, and she had lived quite contentedly in the enjoyment of her wealth and worldly position.
Yet surely there remained to her the sorrowful recollection of that brave husband, who died a noble death, which might deliver her from this fatal fascination. She strove to love him dead as she had never dreamt of loving him when living.
Then she forgot his soldier’s habit of sternness; forgot that no real sympathy had ever existed between them, and dwelt only on his kind indulgence, which had been bestowed upon her as upon a child, magnifying it to the utmost. Yet, after all, they twain were only parties to a contract, beauty for wealth. She had acted her part faithfully as a wife, but her heart had never been asked, and never been given. There was no deliverance for her in all this. The feeling which wrestled with her was love,—first love,—with all its intensity, first love, to be met with shuddering and endured with sorrow. It was her sister’s name which stole from his unconscious lips as she smoothed his pillow with trembling hands, and drew aside the ruffled hair from his burning brow.
But she had saved his life! there was comfort in that. The doctors all said that her careful nursing had availed more than their skill; in truth, they marvelled at the way she had, as it were, instinctively felt the slightest changes in his condition. At last they said, the sea voyage, at all hazard, was the only hope of saving him. It lightened her heart for the moment, to lavish every comfort that money could procure in the fitting up of his cabin. He was carried on board on a couch, too weak to know of the arrangements that had been made.
There was a change for the better from the first day of his being at sea; yet his progress towards recovery was very slow. In the depth of her heart she was glad at this; for the more service she could render, the more the load on her soul was eased; it likewise prolonged her privilege to be near him, for she felt, when he was fully recovered, that the past must be an everlasting bar between them. She felt convinced of this, yet she hoped against her conviction;—saddest logic!
He had not entirely recovered his strength: his cheeks were still thin and pale. She knew it was only the golden rose of the setting sun which flushed his face, as he sat near the bulwark, gazing on the last sunset of their voyage. She might justly claim her right of care a little longer; he had no friends near Liverpool. He must remain at her sister’s house until his health was quite restored. She was too blind to see that she had no right to take him to her sister’s home. It was the only means she possessed of retaining him near her.
“The captain tells me we shall be at Liverpool early to-morrow,” said she, addressing him timidly. Then the set words, thought of so long before, escaped her at the moment; she could only add abruptly,
“You have forgiven me, Markham?”
At her last words he turned from the sunset, and looked earnestly in her face.
“I have forgiven you,” he said, compassionately. “I fear your greatest effort will be to forgive yourself.”
“I shall never be able to do that.”
“I am bound in deep gratitude to you, Pauline, for your devoted care—”
“Not bound to me; you have saved my life!”
“Aye; that was but a chance—quick, thoughtless work. I should have acted in the same way had any one else been in your place.”
“But your noble forgiveness—”
He did not appear to heed her words. “You must let me say, Pauline, that I am bound to you in gratitude, and I would do all I could to help you in this sorrow; but I know we can only forgive ourselves when God, in his mercy, allows us the opportunity of repairing the past.”
“Markham, I am very rich; set me to any task of doing good.”
“I shall only demand one act from you. You will tell your sister.”
She was utterly cast down. She had feared he would demand this of her. She could bear for him to know her guilt, but for another to know it—why, the knowledge in his mind that another utterly despised her would inevitably lower her still further in his estimation.
“I ask an act of justice, Pauline.”
She was silent.
“An act of justice! Let her know that I was true. It will be my only consolation.”
In broken words she prayed him to spare her.
“I am resolved, Pauline,—if you are silent, I shall speak myself.”
She knew the strength of his word.
Then a sense of utter desolation came upon her,—she, who had been so careless of all affection, caring only for worldly prosperity—well, that was attained, but she was miserable—there were only two beings on earth she loved—his love, could never be hers—and her sister’s love would be lost to her for ever.
“Oh, Markham! grant me a respite,—let me be happy a little time with her before she hates me—a few days—a week.”
“Be it so! A week!” replied Markham; and he turned his face from her towards the long beams of golden cloud, which rested on the horizon, through which the sun was sinking into the sea.
“Only a week, Mr. Markham! Must you leave us so soon?”
“You are very good, Mrs. Manson, but the truth is, I ought to have gone directly up to town on my landing.”
“Not to begin business yet! I’m certain your health is far from being restored.”
“The directors are very pressing to see me; indeed, I received an urgent letter this morning. I think if I am well enough to enjoy myself here, I have no right to delay a very obvious duty.”
“You will come to us again?”
“Thank you, I can scarcely promise myself that pleasure, my engagements are so very uncertain. I believe, in a short time, when things are rather more settled, I shall have to return to my post in India.”
“India!—your health is not fit for that;—your friends ought never to allow you.”
“It’s my livelihood, you must recollect.”
There was a pause in the conversation. For a few moments, Mrs. Manson bent her head over the work-frame, and appeared to be busily engaged in her work.
“Mr. Markham, I know you will not misunderstand me, but when you talk of leaving us and not coming again—I feel there is something I ought to say—I know I should never forgive myself if I were silent. There is one person who will be very sorry when you go away. Now mind, it’s not from any conversation between us, I give you my honour—but I can see better than words can tell—my sister loves you!”
“Circumstances,” said he, “have certainly thrown us together—but I have never observed—”
“Ah! you must trust to us women; in these matters we are the best judges. Why, the simple fact of her mentioning your name so seldom in conversation; but, besides this, I can see how much her character has altered since she went away. As a girl, though she had many excellent qualities, she was rather too fond of grandeur and show, for I will be frank with you. But that, I am sure, is all changed—she seems to cling to me for love, she’s half spoiled my boys in this short time. I fear her marriage was not very happy—Colonel Vincent was a kind, good man, but far older—and there must exist a sympathetic feeling, if I may call it so, to render marriage perfectly happy.”
Markham’s eyes were fixed on the ground, and he heard her voice falter at the last sentence.
“Recollect that she owes her life to you! I know, years ago, when she used to laugh and joke about people being in love, I’ve said, ‘Ah, Pauline, with that fixed purpose of yours, when you really love, it will be a matter of intensest joy or sorrow—’”
“Mrs. Manson,” said Markham, interrupting her, “this announcement is totally unexpected. Without questioning whether you have rightly interpreted your sister’s feelings, it is proper for me to tell you at once, that this affection, supposing it to exist, can never be returned.”
“The fault will be mine,” said Mrs. Manson, sorrowfully.
“For speaking so prematurely; but what could I do when I found you were going to leave?” She rose from her chair, greatly agitated.
“Edward Markham, I have a right to speak to you: you owe me something. I transfer all that to my sister;—if you loved her, I could forgive the past. Maybe, it was prudent in you to give up that engagement which seemed so hopeless; but on the night of that fourteenth of June we had sworn to one another to be true, and wait patiently,—and yet in three short months!—well, no matter now. I returned you your letters, all but one.”
“You returned me all my letters,” said Markham, his iron resolution tried to the very verge.
“No, not that last letter; I could not return it then.”
By the utmost effort governing her trembling hands, she unlocked her desk, and drew out a little packet.
“I read that letter twice, only twice, and then I sealed it up with this black wax. I have never read it since—no need; every word is stamped in my heart. They must have dragged me to the altar, but for that.”
She forced the packet into his hand.
“There, Edward, I can forgive it all, forget all those words, if you make her happy. I live very happily now, very happily.”
Only a few words, and she would know the truth—know that he had been faithful to his pledge; but he stifled the words which were rising to his lips, and clenched his teeth hard.
She stopped him for a moment as he was about to leave the room—she had in some degree recovered her self-possession.
“Mr. Markham, I shall never speak on this subject again; but I bid you think well before you throw away a loving heart.”
He was tempted more than falls to the common lot of mortals. He must have yielded, had the temptation fallen on him unawares; but before he left Calcutta, he had resolved to see her once more, and through the long voyage, and in many a restless night, he had weighed the chances of their meeting, and armed himself at all points for resistance.
“Markham, have you told her?”
She could not speak for the moment, she could only clasp his hand.
“She is never to be told!”
“This is noble beyond thought! Oh, Markham, I promise you I will strive to the utmost to atone for the past—anything is easy if I possess her love. But your goodness—I can never repay that.”
“Wait awhile, Pauline. Weigh my words—she is never to be told.”
“Yes, yes, I do weigh them: they seal that forgiveness which was freely given me at the hour of death.”
“Pauline, I must have it on your honour, that you will never tell her.”
“On my honour!” She repeated the words hastily, but she was somewhat perplexed at his meaning, and looking on his face, she saw that same expression, as it were, the very soul flushing the countenance, which she remembered so vividly when she knelt at his feet in the hovel. “Never tell her, Markham?”
“Not if I were at the point of death?”
“Not even at that time—you are bound evermore to silence.”
She had passed through the agonising fear of death; she recollected her troubled prayers; she recollected there was no gleam of hope in her breast till he had forgiven her—then only she had found peace for her soul.
“Oh, Markham, do not bind me to this—nay, let me speak out now; let me suffer any pain now, so that she forgives me at the end.”
She would have left the room: he drew her back.
“I cannot free you: it is not to me you are bound. I dare say you went with a feeling of triumph to that grand wedding when your sister became Mrs. Manson. In all probability those awful words of the marriage-service made no impression upon you at the time, and most likely you have never thought upon them since: ‘Let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace.’ You might have spoken then, but now those words bind you for ever.”
She listened to him with her head depressed, her hands covering her face.
“When I found that your sister had been really true to me, my feeling towards her, which was that of utter contempt, turned back to old love, and I resolved to see her once more. Believe in my good faith—only to see her, and part for ever. I calculated my strength of will. I thought I was very strong—let no man trust to his strength in such a case! Since I came to this house, I have walked through the fire of temptation. Listen well to me, Pauline, and hear how strongly you are bound to silence. I saw that she was not happy—as to his love for her—”
“Mr. Manson is very proud of her,” interrupted Mrs. Vincent.
“Yes,” he replied, bitterly, “and he is very proud of his fine horses. If he does not absolutely ill treat her, she lives utterly without sympathy or affection. I dare not tell you what I have felt; but I tell you my resolution was so utterly weakened, that at one moment it was only the sight of how she clung to those children of hers—how all her happiness was centered there—”
“I understand your meaning, sir!” exclaimed Mrs. Vincent, proudly. “My sister would under all circumstances have recollected her duty.”
“It might indeed be as you say. Do you know this letter?”
Breaking the black seals, he placed the false letter in her hand. She gazed at it with a sort of fascination, and in low tones said, “I thought it was burnt at the time—she told me so—it was not with the other letters she gave me to send back.”
“You would have taken care of that,” he replied, with a withering glance.
“When did you receive it?”
“An hour ago—your sister gave it to me, reproaching me for having broken my plighted faith.”
“Am I to bring a curse on this house?” she cried in terror, falling at his feet. “God save us from this shame! Oh, Markham, I trusted to your honour when I brought you here.”
“You forget, Pauline, that I have already told you she does not know the cruel and shameful history of that letter. We will take it, as you say, at all costs she would have been faithful to her duty; but think of the terrible struggle—think of the long suffering—if she ever does know the truth. Why should she suffer? She has done no wrong. We are bound to silence in mercy to her. Mark these words, Pauline—the evil and sorrow rest on your head, if you ever break that pledge of silence.”
She made him no answer.
“You forgave me once,” she murmured.
“God forbid I should retract those words! It is possible to forgive, but it is impossible to absolve you from the consequences of your guilt.”
Markham went back to India.
He had displayed great originality and skill in the construction of a certain railway-bridge across a rapid river, under circumstances of great difficulty. In addition to its engineering merits, the bridge happened to form the last link in a trunk-line of railway communication which promised to be of the highest value in developing the resources of the country. All classes were deeply interested. There would be a grand ovation to the engineer on the opening of the bridge. The day appointed for the ceremony had arrived.
“Not ready to start, Markham! You’ll be late,” cried the assistant engineer.
“I’ve written to say I can’t be there.”
“Bless me! it’s one of the grandest days in your life.”
“The fact is, I’ve just received a letter from England—”
“Not a loss in your family, I hope?”
“No; but still containing very melancholy intelligence.”
“Well, Markham, I think you ought to come, nevertheless; your services demand public recognition.”
“You know me, old boy—I don’t care twopence for that sort of thing—and, as for the bridge, I’ve got twice as good a plan in my head at this moment. Let them stick the laurel into your turban. Off with you, or you’ll get a wigging for being late.”
Markham was alone all that day. The letter he had received lay open before him. It was from a clergyman. The portion he read over oftenest ran thus:
G. U. S.