Read CHAPTER XL. of Paul Faber‚ Surgeon, free online book, by George MacDonald, on ReadCentral.com.

A DESOLATION.

When Faber at length returned to Glaston, his friends were shocked at his appearance.  Either the hand of the Lord, or the hand of crushing chance, had been heavy upon him.  A pale, haggard, worn, enfeebled man, with an eye of suffering, and a look that shrunk from question, he repaired to his desolate house.  In the regard of his fellow-townsmen he was as Job appeared to the eyes of his friends; and some of them, who knew no more of religion than the sound of its name, pitied him that he had not the comfort of it.  All Glaston was tender to him.  He walked feebly, seldom showed the ghost of a smile, and then only from kindness, never from pleasure.  His face was now almost as white as that of his lost Juliet.  His brother doctors behaved with brotherly truth.  They had attended to all his patients, poor as well as rich, and now insisted that he should resume his labors gradually, while they fulfilled his lack.  So at first he visited only his patients in the town, for he was unable to ride; and his grand old horse, Ruber, in whom he trusted, and whom he would have ventured sooner to mount than Niger, was gone!  For weeks he looked like a man of fifty; and although by degrees the restorative influences of work began to tell upon him, he never recovered the look of his years.  Nobody tried to comfort him.  Few dared, for very reverence, speak to the man who carried in him such an awful sorrow.  Who would be so heartless as counsel him to forget it? and what other counsel was there for one who refused like him?  Who could have brought himself to say to him ­“There is loveliness yet left, and within thy reach:  take the good, etc.; forget the nothing that has been, in the something that may yet for awhile avoid being nothing too; comfort thy heart with a fresh love:  the time will come to forget both, in the everlasting tomb of the ancient darkness”?  Few men would consent to be comforted in accordance with their professed theories of life; and more than most would Faber, at this period of his suffering, have scorned such truth for comfort.  As it was, men gave him a squeeze of the hand, and women a tearful look; but from their sympathy he derived no faintest pleasure, for he knew he deserved nothing that came from heart of tenderness.  Not that he had begun to condemn himself for his hardness to the woman who, whatever her fault, yet honored him by confessing it, or to bemoan her hard fate to whom a man had not been a hiding-place from the wind, a covert from the tempest of life, a shadow-shelter from the scorching of her own sin.  As he recovered from the double shock, and, his strength slowly returning, his work increased, bringing him again into the run of common life, his sense of desolation increased.  As his head ached less, his heart ached the more, nor did the help he ministered to his fellows any longer return in comfort to himself.  Hitherto his regard of annihilation had been as of something so distant, that its approach was relatively by degrees infinitesimal, but as the days went on, he began to derive a gray consolation from the thought that he must at length cease to exist.  He would not hasten the end; he would be brave, and see the play out.  Only it was all so dull!  If a woman looked kindly at him, if for a moment it gave him pleasure, the next it was as an arrow in his heart.  What a white splendor was vanished from his life!  Where were those great liquid orbs of radiating darkness? ­where was that smile with its flash of whiteness? ­that form so lithe, yet so stately, so perfect in modulation? ­where were those hands and feet that spoke without words, and took their own way with his heart? ­those arms ?  His being shook to its center.  One word of tenderness and forgiveness, and all would have been his own still! ­But on what terms? ­Of dishonor and falsehood, he said, and grew hard again.  He was sorry for Juliet, but she and not he was to blame.  She had ruined his life, as well as lost her own, and his was the harder case, for he had to live on, and she had taken with her all the good the earth had for him.  She had been the sole object of his worship; he had acknowledged no other divinity; she was the loveliness of all things; but she had dropped from her pedestal, and gone down in the sea that flows waveless and windless and silent around the worlds.  Alas for life!  But he would bear on till its winter came.  The years would be as tedious as hell; but nothing that ends can be other than brief.  Not willingly even yet would he fail of what work was his.  The world was bad enough; he would not leave it worse than he had found it.  He would work life out, that he might die in peace.  Fame truly there was none for him, but his work would not be lost.  The wretched race of men would suffer a little the less that he had lived.  Poor comfort, if more of health but ministered to the potency of such anguish as now burrowed in him like a mole of fire!

There had been a time when, in the young pathos of things, he would shut his eyes that the sunset might not wound him so sore; now, as he rode homeward into the fronting sunset, he felt nothing, cared for nothing, only ached with a dull aching through body and soul.  He was still kind to his fellows, but the glow of the kindness had vanished, and truest thanks hardly waked the slightest thrill.

He very seldom saw Wingfold now, and less than ever was inclined toward his doctrine; for had it not been through him this misery had come upon him?  Had he not, with the confidence of all the sciences, uttered the merest dreams as eternal truths?  How could poor Juliet help supposing he knew the things he asserted, and taking them for facts?  The human heart was the one unreasonable thing, sighing ever after that which is not!  Sprung from nothing, it yet desired a creator! ­at least some hearts did so:  his did not; he knew better!

There was of course no reason in this.  Was the thing not a fact which she had confessed? was he not a worshiper of fact? did he not even dignify it with the name of truth? and could he wish his wife had kept the miserable fact to herself, leaving him to his fools’-paradise of ignorance?  Why then should he feel resentment against the man whose teaching had only compelled her to confess it? ­But the thing was out of the realm of science and its logic.

Sometimes he grew fierce, and determined to face every possible agony, endure all, and dominate his misery; but ever and anon it returned with its own disabling sickness, bringing the sense of the unendurable.  Of his own motion he saw nobody except in his practice.  He studied hard, even to weariness and faintness, contrived strange experiments, and caught, he believed, curious peeps into the house of life.  Upon them he founded theories as wild as they were daring, and hob-nobbed with death and corruption.  But life is at the will of the Maker, and misery can not kill it.  By degrees a little composure returned, and the old keen look began to revive.  But there were wrinkles on the forehead that had hitherto been smooth as ivory; furrows, the dry water-courses of sorrow, appeared on his cheeks, and a few silvery threads glinted in his hair.  His step was heavy, and his voice had lost its ring ­the cheer was out of it.  He no more obtruded his opinions, for, as I have said, he shrunk from all interchange, but he held to them as firmly as ever.  He was not to be driven from the truth by suffering!  But there was a certain strange movement in his spirit of which he took no note ­a feeling of resentment, as if against a God that yet did not exist, for making upon him the experiment whether he might not, by oppression, be driven to believe in Him.

When Dorothy knew of his return, and his ways began to show that he intended living just as before his marriage, the time seemed come for telling Juliet of the accident and his recovery from the effects of it.  She went into violent hysterics, and the moment she could speak, blamed Dorothy bitterly for not having told her before.

“It is all your lying religion!” she said.

“Your behavior, Juliet,” answered Dorothy, putting on the matron, and speaking with authority, “shows plainly how right I was.  You were not to be trusted, and I knew it.  Had I told you, you would have rushed to him, and been anything but welcome.  He would not even have known you; and you would have been two on the doctor’s hands.  You would have made everything public, and when your husband came to himself, would probably have been the death of him after all.”

“He may have begun to think more kindly of me by that time,” said Juliet, humbled a little.

“We must not act on may-haves,” answered Dorothy.

“You say he looks wretched now,” suggested Juliet.

“And well he may, after concussion of the brain, not to mention what preceded it,” said Dorothy.

She had come to see that Juliet required very plain speaking.  She had so long practiced the art of deceiving herself that she was skillful at it.  Indeed, but for the fault she had committed, she would all her life long have been given to petting and pitying, justifying and approving of herself.  One can not help sometimes feeling that the only chance for certain persons is to commit some fault sufficient to shame them out of the self-satisfaction in which they burrow.  A fault, if only it be great and plain enough to exceed their powers of self-justification, may then be, of God’s mercy, not indeed an angel of light to draw them, but verily a goblin of darkness to terrify them out of themselves.  For the powers of darkness are His servants also, though incapable of knowing it:  He who is first and last can, even of those that love the lie, make slaves of the truth.  And they who will not be sons shall be slaves, let them rant and wear crowns as they please in the slaves’ quarters.

“You must not expect him to get over such a shock all at once,” said Dorothy. “ ­It may be,” she continued, “that you were wrong in running away from him.  I do not pretend to judge between you, but, perhaps, after the injury you had done him, you ought to have left it with him to say what you were to do next.  By taking it in your own hands, you may have only added to the wrong.”

“And who helped me?” returned Juliet, in a tone of deep reproach.

“Helped you to run from him, Juliet! ­Really, if you were in the habit of behaving to your husband as you do to me !” She checked herself, and resumed calmly ­“You forget the facts of the case, my dear.  So far from helping you to run from him, I stopped you from running so far that neither could he find you, nor you return to him again.  But now we must make the best of it by waiting.  We must find out whether he wants you again, or your absence is a relief to him.  If I had been a man, I should have been just as wild as he.”

She had seen in Juliet some signs that self-abhorrence was wanting, and self-pity reviving, and she would connive at no unreality in her treatment of herself.  She was one thing when bowed to the earth in misery and shame, and quite another if thinking herself hardly used on all sides.

It was a strange position for a young woman to be in ­that of watcher over the marriage relations of two persons, to neither of whom she could be a friend otherwise than ab extra.  Ere long she began almost to despair.  Day after day she heard or saw that Faber continued sunk in himself, and how things were going there she could not tell.  Was he thinking about the wife he had lost, or brooding over the wrong she had done him?  There was the question ­and who was to answer it?  At the same time she was all but certain, that, things being as they were, any reconciliation that might be effected would owe itself merely to the raising, as it were of the dead, and the root of bitterness would soon trouble them afresh.  If but one of them had begun the task of self-conquest, there would be hope for both.  But of such a change there was in Juliet as yet no sign.

Dorothy then understood her position ­it was wonderful with what clearness, but solitary necessity is a hot sun to ripen.  What was she to do?  To what quarter ­could she to any quarter look for help?  Naturally she thought first of Mr. Wingfold.  But she did not feel at all sure that he would consent to receive a communication upon any other understanding than that he was to act in the matter as he might see best; and would it be right to acquaint him with the secret of another when possibly he might feel bound to reveal it?  Besides, if he kept it hid, the result might be blame to him; and blame, she reasoned, although a small matter in regard to one like herself, might in respect of a man in the curate’s position involve serious consequences.  While she thus reflected, it came into her mind with what enthusiasm she had heard him speak of Mr. Polwarth, attributing to him the beginnings of all enlightenment he had himself ever received.  Without this testimony, she would not have once thought of him.  Indeed she had been more than a little doubtful of him, for she had never felt attracted to him, and from her knowledge of the unhealthy religious atmosphere of the chapel, had got unreasonably suspicious of cant.  She had not had experience enough to distinguish with any certainty the speech that comes from the head and that which comes out of the fullness of the heart.  A man must talk out of that which is in him; his well must give out the water of its own spring; but what seems a well maybe only a cistern, and the water by no means living water.  What she had once or twice heard him say, had rather repelled than drawn her; but Dorothy had faith, and Mr. Wingfold had spoken.  Might she tell him?  Ought she not to seek his help?  Would he keep the secret?  Could he help if he would?  Was he indeed as wise as they said?

In the meantime, little as she thought it, Polwarth had been awaiting a communication from her; but when he found that the question whose presence was so visible in her whole bearing, neither died nor bore fruit, he began to think whether he might not help her to speak.  The next time, therefore, that he opened the gate to her, he held in his hand a little bud he had just broken from a monthly rose.  It was a hard little button, upon which the green leaves of its calyx clung as if choking it.

“What is the matter with this bud, do you think, Miss Drake?” he asked.

“That you have plucked it,” she answered sharply, throwing a suspicious glance in his face.

“No; that can not be it,” he answered with a quiet smile of intelligence.  “It has been just as you see it for the last three days.  I only plucked it the moment I saw you coming.”

“Then the frost has caught it.”

“The frost has caught it,” he answered; “but I am not quite sure whether the cause of its death was not rather its own life than the frost.”

“I don’t see what you mean by that, Mr. Polwarth,” said Dorothy, doubtfully, and with a feeling of discomfort.

“I admit it sounds paradoxical,” returned the little man.  “What I mean is, that the struggle of the life in it to unfold itself, rather than any thing else, was the cause of its death.”

“But the frost was the cause of its not being able to unfold itself,” said Dorothy.

“That I admit,” said Polwarth; “and perhaps a weaker life in the flower would have yielded sooner.  I may have carried too far an analogy I was seeking to establish between it and the human heart, in which repression is so much more dangerous than mere oppression.  Many a heart has withered like my poor little bud, because it did not know its friend when it saw him.”

Dorothy was frightened.  He knew something!  Or did he only suspect?  Perhaps he was merely guessing at her religious troubles, wanting to help her.  She must answer carefully.

“I have no doubt you are right, Mr. Polwarth,” she said; “but there are some things it is not wise, and other things it would not be right to speak about.”

“Quite true,” he answered.  “I did not think it wise to say any thing sooner, but now I venture to ask how the poor lady does?”

“What lady?” returned Dorothy, dreadfully startled, and turning white.

“Mrs. Faber,” answered Polwarth, with the utmost calmness.  “Is she not still at the Old House?”

“Is it known, then?” faltered Dorothy.

“To nobody but myself, so far as I am aware,” replied the gatekeeper.

“And how long have you known it?”

“From the very day of her disappearance, I may say.”

“Why didn’t you let me know sooner?” said Dorothy, feeling aggrieved, though she would have found it hard to show wherein lay the injury.

“For more reasons than one,” answered Polwarth; “but one will be enough:  you did not trust me.  It was well therefore to let you understand I could keep a secret.  I let you know now only because I see you are troubled about her.  I fear you have not got her to take any comfort, poor lady!”

Dorothy stood silent, gazing down with big, frightened eyes at the strange creature who looked steadfastly up at her from under what seemed a huge hat ­for his head was as large as that of a tall man.  He seemed to be reading her very thoughts.

“I can trust you, Miss Drake,” he resumed.  “If I did not, I should have at once acquainted the authorities with my suspicions; for, you will observe, you are hiding from a community a fact which it has a right to know.  But I have faith enough in you to believe that you are only waiting a fit time, and have good reasons for what you do.  If I can give you any help, I am at your service.”

He took off his big hat, and turned away into the house.

Dorothy stood fixed for a moment or two longer, then walked slowly away, with her eyes on the ground.  Before she reached the Old House, she had made up her mind to tell Polwarth as much as she could without betraying Juliet’s secret, and to ask him to talk to her, for which she would contrive an opportunity.

For some time she had been growing more anxious every day.  No sign of change showed in any quarter; no way opened through the difficulties that surrounded them, while these were greatly added to by the likelihood appearing that another life was on its way into them.  What was to be done?  How was she in her ignorance so to guard the hopeless wife that motherhood might do something to console her?  She had two lives upon her hands, and did indeed want counsel.  The man who knew their secret already ­the minor prophet, she had heard the curate call him ­might at least help her to the next step she must take.

Juliet’s mental condition was not at all encouraging.  She was often ailing and peevish, behaving as if she owed Dorothy grudge instead of gratitude.  And indeed to herself Dorothy would remark that if nothing more came out of it than seemed likely now, Juliet would be under no very ponderous obligation to her.  She found it more and more difficult to interest her in any thing.  After Othello she did not read another play.  Nothing pleased her but to talk about her husband.  If Dorothy had seen him, Juliet had endless questions to put to her about him; and when she had answered as many of them as she could, she would put them all over again afresh.  On one occasion when Dorothy could not say she believed he was, when she saw him, thinking about his wife, Juliet went into hysterics.  She was growing so unmanageable that if Dorothy had not partially opened her mind to Polwarth, she must at last have been compelled to give her up.  The charge was wearing her out; her strength was giving way, and her temper growing so irritable that she was ashamed of herself ­and all without any good to Juliet.  Twice she hinted at letting her husband know where she was, but Juliet, although, on both occasions, she had a moment before been talking as if Dorothy alone prevented her from returning to him, fell on her knees in wild distress, and entreated her to bear with her.  At the smallest approach of the idea toward actuality, the recollection rushed scorching back ­of how she had implored him, how she had humbled herself soul and body before him, how he had turned from her with loathing, would not put forth a hand to lift her from destruction and to restore her to peace, had left her naked on the floor, nor once returned “to ask the spotted princess how she fares” ­and she shrunk with agony from any real thought of again supplicating his mercy.

Presently another difficulty began to show in the near distance:  Mr. Drake, having made up his mind as to the alterations he would have effected, had begun to think there was no occasion to put off till the spring, and talked of commencing work in the house at no distant day.  Dorothy therefore proposed to Juliet that, as it was impossible to conceal her there much longer, she should go to some distant part of the country, where she would contrive to follow her.  But the thought of moving further from her husband, whose nearness, though she dared not seek him, seemed her only safety, was frightful to Juliet.  The wasting anxiety she caused Dorothy did not occur to her.  Sorrow is not selfish, but many persons are in sorrow entirely selfish.  It makes them so important in their own eyes, that they seem to have a claim upon all that people can do for them.

To the extent therefore, of what she might herself have known without Juliet’s confession, Dorothy, driven to her wits’ end, resolved to open the matter to the gatekeeper; and accordingly, one evening on her way home, called at the lodge, and told Polwarth where and in what condition she had found Mrs. Faber, and what she had done with her; that she did not think it the part of a friend to advise her return to her husband at present; that she would not herself hear of returning; that she had no comfort, and her life was a burden to her; and that she could not possibly keep her concealed much longer, and did not know what next to do.

Polwarth answered only that he must make the acquaintance of Mrs. Faber.  If that could be effected, he believed he should be able to help them out of their difficulties.  Between them, therefore, they must arrange a plan for his meeting her.