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Alice Gilbert's Confession.
ONLY to you, dear friend, and after many years, can I confess the sin of my youth; a sin which stole in upon me with the stealthy trail of a leopard, and by cruel and fierce temptations laid low my feeble soul, even to the dust.
You know that while a thousand unnoted days sink deep into the waters of oblivion, the chance hour, when there dawned a new epoch in our lives, though not more bright or memorable in itself, remains for ever bathed in its own morning light; or, like the pole-star, never declines below the horizon into the silent sea. It is therefore that I remember with distinctness the aspect of a certain summer-morning among the mountains round Enledale, where my father had fixed our dwelling. The dew glistened on the sunny sides of the knolls; and long shadows, clearly defined as shadows are in the prime of the day, fell across the turf from solitary fir- trees and groups of tall gorse-bushes; while the cool air bore upon its soft currents the scent of heather and fern. On the other side of the main valley that intersected the mountains the hills had veiled themselves with a gossamer-web of vapour, like coquettish beauties feigning bashfulness; before us lay a broad table-land, where there were no boundaries to our wanderings; for as far as the eye could reach westward, there spread unenclosed, unlimited stretches of mossy sward, sinking us ankle-deep at every step on its yielding surface.
My father always fancied he could talk to me more unreservedly and fluently in the freedom of the open air, far away up the hills, beyond the sound of farm-house labours and village cries. He must get higher than the blue smoke of cottage-fires and the tokens of human residence; even beyond the grazing flocks of sheep and the haunt of the wood-pigeon and lark; where the occasional caw of a vagrant crow, or the momentary buzzing of an enterprising bee, were the only sounds to break the prevailing stillness. Here my father, who was a misanthrope by profession, and somewhat of a hypochondriac, would unbend from his customary constraint, and expatiate upon the long line of independent yeomen of England, of whom I was the last descendant; of those men who had been all brave and loyal and honourable ; and the women, all alike beautiful and virtuous, with no stain nor slur upon their fair reputation. Sometimes I, who had inherited little of this vaunted beauty, would assure him that I should not detract from the spotless character of my ancestors, for that I should never be tempted.
I was reiterating this assurance with a merry laugh that morning, as I sat beside him in the solitude we loved, when the snort of a horse behind us caused me to spring suddenly to my feet, though my father sat still in the imperturbability of age. This, however, was no shaggy mountain-pony frisking over the uplands, but a horse with a rider, who reined him in with a strong curb as he started aside at my appearance. For a minute or two, till the animal was subdued, I scrutinised the horseman furtively. A dark, grave, most melancholy - looking man, approaching middle age, with a face filled with profound lines of some past suffering and conflict, which was not altogether past yet, and with keen eyes that fastened upon me in a penetrative look, before which mine fell abashed, only to be lifted up again, as by some fascination, the first moment I believed his attention to be directed elsewhere.
“ Mr. Windsor ?” he said, in a low, grave, but pleasant voice. “I am Gilbert, Dr. Gilbert, of Enledale. I received a message from you this morning."
“You did, sir," answered my father; “I have been disappointed in not having seen you before. Did you not remember that we are allied to you by marriage ? This girl, my daughter, is first cousin to the Joanna Windsor you married nine years ago.” '
“Yes," said Dr. Gilbert, while a spasm of recollection crossed his features.
“There is little likeness,” pursued my father ; "poor Joanna was very lovely; yet Alice does resemble her at times. I've never met you before, doctor; but I remember her kindly,- the only child of my only brother, both entered' now into one rest. I always think of them when I look forward to leaving my girl here. Doctor, you are the only man in the world with whom blood or marriage connects us, and I was hurt, sir, when nearly a month was gone since we settled in Enledale, and you had never been near us.”
“I have been busy," he stammered.
"Doctor," said my father, in a pleading tone, “I am getting an old man, and I'm ailing. My physicians deceive me, sir, and play upon me with experiments. But I heard your character, and I determined to come and place myself and my daughter under your charge. She is a delicate girl, and has no mother to take care of her; if Alice should die, as Joanna did, before her father, it would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.”
“Father, father!" I exclaimed buoyantly, meeting with a smile the steady, professional gaze fixed upon me, "you fret yourself for nothing. I am as strong as a young lion. "I am brimful of life.”
Perhaps there was something in my voice or smile that reminded Dr. Gilbert of Joanna, for his whip and bridle fell from his nerveless hold, and he bowed his face upon his hands. A moment after he raised it again, quivering with emotion. “Oh, Dr. Gilbert!" I cried, “I am sorry for you. We did not think we should grieve you like this so long after."
“I will call upon you this evening,” he said, after a minute's pause. “I am riding now to a mountain-village some miles distant."
He held out his hand to my father, but overlooked me; and I watched him ride away with a faint sense of mortification and disappointment. I, who had known no relatives, felt my heart lean towards this man, upon whom we had so slight a claim of connexion. As his figure stood for a moment upon the near horizon in strong relief against the sky, and then disappeared quickly, my father broke the silence into which we had fallen.
“He is wondrously constant,” he said, “unless, indeed, he aspires, as Rochefoucauld says some women do, to the glory of a great and immortal sorrow. I loved your mother, Alice; but seven years after her death I could speak of her with a kind of quiet pleasure. To be sure, Joanna was an exquisite creature ; too delicate for India, poor girl. If she had not been on the eve of dying for this young fellow, John would never have consented to her going. And after all she died. Mark you, Alice, no playing at despair will move me."
Dr. Gilbert came to us that evening. At first he was very constrained and absent, evidently fearful of further allusions to his wife; but as he found my father entering upon topics of general interest, his manner became less reserved. In a few weeks a pleasant intimacy was established between them; and at our fireside he permitted himself to return to a degree of the frank and joyous temperament that was his by nature. He allotted to me studies with which I had not intermeddled before, as my father dreaded making me a clever woman; but Dr. Gilbert, when he asserted himself, had a rare power of exacting a charmed compliance to his will. There was something masterful in his character, which bowed us both before him; and my father, as well as I, enjoyed the tacit authority he assumed over us. Sometimes as I sat opposite to them I would meet their
father would instantly turn away his vacillating glance, while Dr. Gilbert's keen and prolonged gaze always compelled me to lower mine. His professional visits caused him to pass our cottage three or four times a week; and it became my custom to listen for his coming, that I might hasten to the window or run down to the garden-gate at the first sound of his horse's hoof-beats. Often my father wanted him to call on his return; and as the winter wore on, it became a settled thing that he should stay an hour or two with us instead of going back to his solitary home.
The conviction that I loved him came first, as perhaps it often comes, in a dream. Mine was vivid and recurrent, but ever forgotten in the morning; and I hunted the dim and shadowy thought which flitted through the chambers of my fancy in vain. One evening, after a day of perplexed reverie, I said to him, “Doctor, here is a psychological problem for you. I have a dream, a troubling dream, which returns every night and goes from me every morning, like Nebuchadnezzar’s of old." Wise man and philosopher as you are, I would you could tell it to me, and the
I interpretation thereof."
A long discussion followed upon all the theories and mysteries of dreaming. When he said good night, and I went with him to the outer door, as was my custom, he loitered on the threshold.
“This owl-like phantasy of yours, Alice,” he said, “ brooding in the
dark recesses of your mind,-you must make it known to me when it ventures into daylight.”
I sighed involuntarily. He was so close to me that I could not look up into his face; and he still held my hand lightly in his, as if he hesitated to leave me. An unusual sensation of embarrassment and shyness crept over me; it seemed as though we had stood and lingered thus hand in hand in some anticipatory past, and I felt as if I knew the words he would utter next. Then my dream flashed across my mind significantly, and as clearly defined as the shadows of the cottage-gables upon the moonlit, frosty lawn: I knew that I loved him deeply, tenderly, unchangeably.
“ Alice,” he said, falteringly, and he repeated my name twice again, “ Alice, child Alice, can you keep a secret for me?"
Could I keep my own secret from him? “I have something I want to tell you, Alice,” he continued, when I
I remained silent; “but your lips must be sealed about it, especially to your father. He must never know. I ought to tell you ;” and he said the last words sharply and decisively, as if in answer to some objection.
“ Tell me," I answered; “I will keep it faithfully."
Once again he covered his face with his hands, and there smote upon my ear a deep, low sob of suppressed anguish.
“Nay,” I said, “you need not fear to tell me. I could not be treacherous. You know I am a Windsor, Dr. Gilbert.”
“Oh, Alice !” he groaned, " Joanna is not dead; she is living still, in infamy and dishonour. She betrayed me.”
Then, while I stood beside him, grave but tranquil in my outward mien; while every nerve tingled, and madness seemed about to take possession of my burning brain and speechless lips, he told me how Joanna Windsor, my cousin, had been false to her family, to him, and to her God, and had abandoned her honourable position as his wife, when he had left her in Calcutta during a temporary absence of the regiment to which he was surgeon; that time when it was reported to us that she was dead.
“It was her own request,” he added; "she bade me tell her father and uncle that she was dead, lest they should curse her. She cared nothing for my curses."
He might have been cursing her then, with that wrathful, quivering face up-raised towards the glaring moon, and that cruel biting of the under-lip, as if to keep back the imprecation. The sight of his passion gave me the mastery over myself.
“Dr. Gilbert,” I said quietly, “you shall find me true; true and secret as the grave."
But, now, to be true to him was to be false to myself and my traditionary virtue. Joanna's sin had paved the pathway of temptation for me. Believe me, I fought against the consciousness which had bloomed innocently for a moment, and was then cankered with a deadly blight; it had come into birth, and it would not perish obediently at the first word that pronounced its existence evil. I declared my love to be a moral impossibility; I denied and confessed it to myself alternately; it poisoned all my pursuits, and made me fitful and capricious. Then I would test myself
, and sit quietly away from the window, while I listened calmly, keeping a critical watch over my tell-tale pulse, to the sound of his approach along the road; but before he could pass the house the exigency of passion burst through my weak control, and I would press to the window to catch a glimpse of him as he rode by. My father's shrewd smile, when he looked at me over his spectacles, was torture to me. I knew too well what he meant and hoped one morning when he bade me take some books home to our kinsman, and would not listen to any excuse, however urgent. "I will conquer it,” I vowed mentally; "this cruel, delusive fancy shall not destroy me. It shall not come between my friend and me. When I am in his home, I will picture Joanna there too." I had been often to his house before, sometimes alone, at others with my father. Such a solemn, soundless house it was, with a hush in it, as if some one was lying dead. That day I thought the doctor's face was more clouded than usual; and the sunshine, pouring in through the uncurtained window, glistened upon the shade of gray in bis dark hair. He came and seated himself beside me, and looked keenly into my downcast face; I tried to enter into conversation with him in my wonted tone, but I could not think of any thing I dared say.
“Child Alice,” he said abruptly, “I have wished to have some talk with you for a long time. You have grown nervous and uncertain of late; and your father and I feel anxious about you. Now it seems to me you have some fancy preying upon your mind. I have been taxing your mental faculties without due regard to your health, and it is not unusual in such cases for some chimera to take possession of the brain, and cause much harassing doubt. It strikes me the books I have lent you may have suggested some apparent anomaly, or maybe some religious difficulties which haunt and oppress you. If it be so, let me claim your confidence as your friend, and let us confront the phantom together. There can be nothing really wrong, my child; it is a spectre of the imagination."
I sat in persistent silence, that wore the air of sullenness; but he did not regard my frowardness, and continued to urge me to be frank with him. At last I said, impatiently, that nothing ailed me; I was only growing tired of our secluded life in Enledale, and I wanted to see the world. Repeating the falsehood over and over again defiantly, as if to convince myself of its truth, I left him; but when he closed the door upon me, a fierce tumult seethed and surged through my rebellious beart; it clamoured for a right to the deserted and desolate hearth within; yet the impassable waves of a wide ocean rolled between me, and him so near to me. I sat down helplessly on the door-step, in utter bitterness of soul; I was not one to weep or cry aloud, but I shivered