Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/A picture in three panels
A PICTURE IN THREE PANELS.
How many years is it, I ask, since I first listened to that music? And you come and lean over the back of my chair and call me foolish. I know you are there, though I do but look on into the fire and read from a book whose pages no printing-press hath touched. Foolish, am I? Well, I am only living over again some old days, happy and unhappy, which have made you and me what we are. Foolish! You forget that you have been playing the “Coro religioso,” and that when I first heard it—well, go your way, and while you are gone, let me think out the story, and paint my picture.
You stood, one of a merry party, near the piano, with your hand on the chair of the player, even as it rested on mine but now. I saw you for the first time, and you were singing the “Coro religioso:” I heard your voice amongst all others, distinct and clear. I was to have taken the Count’s part, but foolish then as I am now, some strange bewilderment seized me, and your Cousin Ernest Haughton stepped forward with his resolute, musical “No, no, non piu,” which I ought to have sung. I sank back abashed, and looked at you both. His hand touched your shoulder—how dared he? And I saw how handsome he was, how polished; with “gentleman” written in every line of his mobile face and every movement of his figure. I heard some one say, “well matched,” and it was true. You looked well together—a fitting couple. Do you see me there, in the dark shadow of the door, biting my moustache and watching you? I was a great, strong, rough fellow compared with Ernest, and I felt it. I was unused to ladies’ society; no mother or sister had taught me gentleness, or its simulation; and so, seeing you for the first time, and feeling my own awkwardness, jealousy took possession of me. I would have had that smoothfaced Ernest out on the hill side with the hounds in full cry and a mighty fence before him; then, would he have beaten me? But there, in the drawing-room, he shone and triumphed, while I stood in the shade watching him.
There is the first panel of my picture. You remember it, I know, but it is not written on your brain as it is on mine.
Its colour was on the days that followed, and it had set a mark on my life for ever. You know how at first you thought me shy and awkward, and in your kindness tried to draw out my scanty words on every occasion; at least, I thought so, and I would not be drawn out. I preferred watching you and your cousin, gloomily; I was in a fever of infatuation, or I should have quitted the house that held you at once, instead of lingering on, buying dearly my first knowledge of the great passions of life. Ernest Haughton would have made friends with me, but I repulsed him; at times I heard him speak light words, which shook my first acknowledgment of admiration for him, and I believed from my heart that he was not worthy of you. Was I? That question never occurred to me; I contented myself with seeing his faults, not thinking of my own. I had a jealous envy of him, for all that; I delighted to outdo him in any way; often I have startled you by some wild feat of daring which I knew Ernest with all his high spirit, would never attempt, but he only laughed at me. Once, I remember, your face grew pale at a momentary danger which I had scorned to fear, and when I saw that, a mad impulse came upon me, and I snatched your hand and pressed my lips upon it. Even then Ernest only turned away to hide a smile. I saw it though; I fancied it was a smile of triumph, and the thought drove me wild. He knew his security, and mocked my weakness. I felt, too, that your manner grew colder and more distant after that.
One day I came upon you suddenly amongst the shrubs; you were looking after the figure of Ernest in the distance, and there was sorrow in your face.
“He is going to leave us,” you said. “He joins his ship to-morrow: and the separation is a painful one.”
I could not keep my tone from being bitter; and you looked at me with reproachful wonder as you answered:
“Of course. He is my cousin.”
A wild hope leaped up in my heart then for a moment, but it sank as quickly. I put it down with a strong hand, feeling that it was madness. I could bear this state of things no longer.
“I shall leave you, too,” I said; “but that will be little loss.”
You gave me no answer; and the ungraciousness of my speech struck me. But your head was turned away; I thought you were still looking after Ernest, and I did leave you. I said no further good-bye to you, but went away silent and miserable, determining to put you out of my thoughts for ever: as if such a thing were in one’s own power.
For twelve long months I never saw you; I hunted, and shot, and fished; I tramped the country, high and low, but I bore about with me always the first panel of my picture; and nothing could drive out from my dreams the voice of Ernest with his “No, no, non piu,” which should have been mine.
I had been rambling for some days amongst the Scottish hills, when the fine weather changed to rain—incessant, heavy; and I was kept prisoner at a wretched inn, where there was nothing to do or to see except the fierce splashes which beat against the window and ran down it in streams. I asked the waiter if it always rained there, and though his answer was as comforting as the response of a brother waiter to a similar query—“Na, na, man, it snaws whiles,” yet he took pity upon my feckless, do-nothing condition, and brought in a pile of old newspapers. I turned them over listlessly. You know what caught my eye; the wreck of a vessel and the names of the lost: Lieutenant Ernest Haughton amongst them. I looked at the date—it was six months back. Forgive me for it, you who know how my whole heart was still clinging about you; could I help the joy that burst from my lips that moment? I did not think of Ernest, of death, or of those who mourned his loss; I thought only that you were free; and that in the possible future which stretched out before my eyes, it might be mine to make up to you for a past sorrow.
I started in the pouring rain: what did I care for that then? I never slackened my speed till I stood once more in the well-known room, and saw you. You were in mourning too: I looked at it jealously at first, thinking that six months had surely been sufficient tribute to the memory of a cousin. But my head grew dizzy as I looked at you, till your exclamation, half of pleasure, half of dismay, made me conscious of the figure I presented. Dabbled, mud-stained, a great rough fellow then as formerly, I stood before you ashamed of myself.
“If you did but know,” I stammered, “how I have longed to see you again; how I have travelled night and day without stopping—”
You broke into my speech, to insist that I needed rest and refreshment, and must have it. You did welcome me—how I blessed you for it.
By and by you spoke to me of Ernest Haughton, and I took courage to ask one daring question, which nothing but your goodness could have pronounced excusable.
“Tell me one thing,” I said. “Were you engaged to Ernest?”
The words slipped from my tongue, as though they had burnt it, and you looked at me calmly and answered “No.”
But then I believed in my secret heart that it was only the word engagement which had been wanting. I hoped, however, from the calmness of your answer, that you were learning to forget; I must give you time for that. You would have talked on about Ernest, his friends, and the shock his death had been, but I changed the subject, and avoided it studiously. I wanted him to be far away in the past, not talked of, but forgotten. I flattered myself that I did not care what he had been to you once, now that it was all over, and I could not help my jealous nature, nor the madness which stung me at times when I heard you pronounce his name with—as I fancied—such regretful tenderness.
I curbed down my impatience for a while with the reflection that I must let you forget him; and then—remember it—I told my tale.
You seemed touched; I saw your lips tremble, but no word came from them. Then I went on, following up my own ideas and acting upon them. I said I did not care for first love—which was false—I wanted you to give me what you could; in time it would be your whole heart, I trusted; and if some passing fancy had ever bound you to another, let it be forgotten. So that it was really past, I would never rake up its ashes.
You turned to me smiling, and asked me falteringly, “Was I less exacting than others, that I promised so readily to be satisfied with a worn-out heart?”
Satisfied! No, I warned you of my jealous nature, but the music of a hundred joy-bells rang in my ears and stumbled from my tongue as I did so. Vehement and passionate always, I scarcely think the old fire has died out of me even yet. At that time I might surely, in my security, have spoken of your cousin, and learnt the depth of your sorrow for him, but I would not. The sting which his name held even then terrified me, and I avoided all mention of him.
You seemed, too, so quiet and undisturbed, while the excitement of my new happiness was filling me with exuberant life, that I could not help at times tormenting myself with the reflection that it was neither new nor strange to you, as it was to me. I did not care much then, however; I was too happy, and I trusted to time. So that I might be with you, and know that you were my promised wife, I could be satisfied.
And you had always a welcome for me; were always ready to listen to my eager plans for the future, and to sympathise with them. Do you remember those summer evenings? How we lingered in the coppice of Fernwood, and saw the sun-light on the mill-stream; glancing through the trees, and playing amongst the underwood? How we sat on grassy knolls and talked, letting the time slip by unheeded, till you would suddenly start up and say there would be a scolding waiting for you at home? I know about those scoldings, do I not? A grave word of anxiety lest you should have taken cold, or stayed out too long; for I was not half careful enough of you. And do you remember standing with me in the shrubbery on the spot where Ernest Haughton had parted from you; and a momentary fancy came into my head that you were thinking of him. But when I looked into your quiet, contented face, and my thought died before it could have reached my lips. That was the eve of our wedding-day. We were married. I cannot think of that time calmly; even now, when I would put the sterner touches to my picture, the excitement of that new happiness comes back to bid me pause.
Idiot, that I was! How came it that, by and by, dark thoughts began to rise up in my heart, and to have a recognised place there? That I looked upon your calm content, and thought, with a jealous pang, that you were not happy with me; that what you had given me was not love, but the dregs of the warm heart which had gone down under the waves with Ernest Haughton? I don’t know how it came about, but so it was. With a wonderful aptitude for self-torment, I raked up all the circumstances, throwing over them the one colour which distorted my own vision. And there grew up a strange coldness between us; I sought after solitude, that I might brood over my thoughts: and if at times you came near and I caught the look of wondering sorrow in your face, I stifled the pang it gave me with the counter thought that it was a sorrow to which I could not minister if I would; a sorrow for the dead.
Why did you bear with me so long and patiently, never uttering one word of reproach? At first, indeed, you used to ask why I was moody and sad, but a cold answer, or a vehement one which you did not understand, sent you away silenced. And this mute forbearance only strengthened the idea that I was nothing to you. Foolish then, if you like: and yet in that folly I was unutterably miserable. Miserable because you were so dear to me; because your very presence, or the touch of your hand, would send a thrill through every pulse, and yet I could do nothing to make you happy. I could do nothing but indulge bitterly the feeling that our marriage was a mistake, and you did not love me. What wonder if day by day you grew more distant and reserved, and I more gloomy, while the barrier between us strengthened? Ours was a strange honeymoon, was it not?
I was sitting over the fire moodily, thinking as usual, wondering how long our life was to go on thus, and how it would end; wandering back again to my wild days among the Scotch hills, to the pile of old newspapers, and the tidings that sent me off through the pouring rain in search of you. My back was to the door, but when I heard it open gently I knew that you were there. You came and stood near me on the rug, and spoke, with your voice a little roused from its usual passionless calm. For you see from the very first you had been so quiet, and my vehement nature craved something more demonstrative. I heard you then with the old thrill stirring my heart, and I traced unwonted excitement in your tone.
“A strange thing has happened,” you said, “and I have come to tell you of it.”
“Well, I am listening.”
For a moment you hesitated, and then went on. And I saw that you held an open letter in your hand.
“My Cousin Ernest was not drowned as we believed. He and four of the crew were saved; they have been brought off one of the lone islands of the Pacific and are in England.”
I never moved. Sitting there with your shadowy presence near me, my wife, I saw in the fire the first panel of my picture, and heard the voice of Ernest break in upon the Nuns’ chorus. For you the sea gave back its dead, and for me what remained? But I knew that you expected me to say something, and I spoke, not in congratulation or rejoicing, I was not false enough for that.
“You must give your cousin a welcome,” I said. “You will be glad to see him—of course he will come here.”
You did not answer. I would not raise my face though I was conscious that you sought to read it. I could not meet that mournful inquiring look of yours which was wont to fill me with inexpressible tenderness.
You turned and went away silently, and left me to my musing. I hardly know what I thought or felt, or wished for. The jealous envy which had been growing up for Ernest dead, changed into disgust and hatred against Ernest living; and across it there came a mockery of gladness in your pleasure at seeing him again. I shunned you less at that time than usual; I could not keep from following you with my eyes compassionately, thinking how I was in the way for ever, and but for me you might be happy.
You remember the day your cousin came. I got up a show of welcome: though lionised and fêted as the hero of the wreck had been, he seemed more intolerable to me than ever. But you were gayer than usual; at dinner you talked lightly, with a make-believe, as I thought, of happiness before him. You were interested in his adventures and drew him out; I alone sat silent and stupid. When you left us, I, holding open the door for you, ventured to look once into your face. Its gaiety was gone, and a wan, dreary exhaustion had come over it. I put my hand over my eyes for a moment, feeling that the table with its glasses and decanters reeled before them.
As I sat down your cousin cried out with a great outburst.
“What on earth is amiss with Ellen? She looks like the ghost of herself.”
I battled with a quick pain at my heart and made some trivial answer. I hated the sight of his handsome face at my table.
“Ellen used to bear a great deal of persecution from me,” he went on, holding up his glass to the light. “You know I was going to be married before that last trip, and when the affair was put off, I made a sort of scape goat of Nelly, and bored her unmercifully. One woman doesn’t often hear another praised as patiently as she did. The only time we ever quarrelled was about you, old fellow.”
I carried my glass to my lips steadily and put it down untasted, but I could not trust my voice to speak.
“I dare say she has told you all about it. You know you were inclined to be ferocious at times, and I got a bad habit of calling you Ursa Major, &c. You needn’t frown about it. The fact was I saw which way the wind blew, and couldn’t resist the fun of having something to tease Nelly about in her turn. I had to be very humble before I got forgiven, and I knew then that Ellen was done for.”
“Will you help yourself?” I said, breaking my silence suddenly, I should have liked to get up and shake hands with him, but for the thought that it might be dangerous.
“No more wine,” said Ernest. “But if you have any place big enough to swing a cat in, where one might make a brute of oneself with a mild cigar—”
I don’t know how to paint it. You were sitting by the fire in the twilight, and your head was bent, with one hand shading your face and the other holding a book which you were not reading. Were you thinking then of the days gone by, and wondering at the dark spirit which had taken possession of your husband? Lights and shadows fell over your face from the fire, but its expression of sadness never changed. And I, knowing what I had been all this time; thinking of my blundering and folly; seeing it in its true light: how could I speak to you?
I don’t know what I said, but I know that the first words of remorse and self-accusation brought your hand to cover my lips gently; and I know that I was happy then as I had never deserved to be: happy afterwards, even in confessing my madness, and hearing your tales of Ernest’s infatuation about some one else; in watching the sorrowful look pass from your face, and its old brightness come back.
“But if it was about Ernest that I had been so—foolish, why did I always stop you when you spoke of him, instead of letting you tell me all?”
That was one of the questions I could not answer. But I should think that your cousin, when he came in from his mild cigar, must have imagined that dinner was a wonderful improver of Ursa Major’s temper.
Are you there again, behind my chair? Well, I have finished the picture and you may look at it. I have had it in my mind’s eye this many a day, and now it is done. There is one comforting reflection about it, viz., if it is true that all men are mad once in their lives, surely my time is over. You were too gentle with me; you should have called me to account instead of bearing all things so patiently. Never mind! we have learnt each other by heart now. One’s first untried affection may be faulty and vacillating, but in spite of Sir Cresswell Cresswell, the holy love of married years does but grow firmer and deeper, and more indispensable as it loses its novelty. What do you say?