GRACE O' GOD
It was a hard winter's night four years ago, lovely and merciless; and towards midnight I walked home from a theatre to my rooms in St. James's Street. The Venusberg of Piccadilly looked white as a nun with snow and moonlight, but the melancholy music of pleasure, and the sad daughters of joy, seemed not to heed the cold. For another hour death and pleasure would dance there beneath the electric lights.
Through the strange women clustering at the corners I took my way,--women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites,--and I thought, as I looked into their poor painted faces,--faces but half human, vampirish faces, faces already waxen with the look of the grave,--I thought, as I often did, of the poor little girl whom De Quincey loved, the good-hearted little `peripatetic' as he called her, who had succoured him during those nights, when, as a young man, he wandered homeless about these very streets,--that good, kind little Ann whom De Quincey had loved, then so strangely lost, and for whose face he looked into women's faces as long as he lived. Often have I stood at the corner of Titchfield Street, and thought how De Quincey had stood there night after night waiting for her to come, but all in vain, and how from the abyss of oblivion into which some cruel chance had swept her, not one cry from her ever reached him again.
I thought, too, as I often did, what if the face I seek should be here among these poor outcasts,--golden face hidden behind a mask of shame, true heart still beating true even amidst this infernal world!
Thus musing, I had walked my way out of the throng, and only a figure here and there in the shadows of doorways waited and waited in the cold.
It was something about one of these waiting figures,--some movement, some chance posture,--that presently surprised my attention and awakened a sudden sense of half recognition. She stood well in the shadow, seeming rather to shrink from than to court attention. As I walked close by her and looked keenly into her face, she cast down her eyes and half turned away. Surely, I had seen that tall, noble figure somewhere before, that haughty head; and then with the apparition a thought struck me--but, no! it couldn't be she! not HERE!
"It is," said my soul, as I turned and walked past her again; "you missed her once, are you going to miss her again?"
"It is," said my eyes, as they swept her for the third time; "but she had glorious chestnut hair, and the hair of this woman is--gilded."
"It is she," said my heart; "thank God, it is she!"
So it was that I went up to that tall, shy figure.
"It must be very cold here," I said; "will you not join me in some supper?"
She assented, and we sought one of the many radiating centres of festivity in the neighbourhood. She was very tired and cold, --so tired she seemed hardly to have the spirit to eat, and evidently the cold had taken tight clutch of her lungs, for she had a cough that went to my heart to hear, and her face was ghastly pale. When I had persuaded her to drink a little wine, she grew more animated and spots of suspicious colour came into her cheeks. So far she had seemed all but oblivious of my presence, but now she gave me a sweet smile of gratitude, one of those irradiating transfiguring smiles that change the whole face, and belong to few faces, the heavenly smile of a pure soul.
Yes, it was she! The woman who sat in front of me was the woman whom I had met so strangely that day on that solitary moorland, and whom in prophecy still more strange my soul had declared to be, "now and for ever and before all worlds the woman God had created for me, and that unless I could be hers and she mine, there could be no home, no peace, for either of us so long as we lived--" and now so strangely met again.
Yes, it was she!
For the moment my mind had room for no other thought. I cared not to conjecture by what devious ways God had brought her to my side. I cared not what mire her feet had trodden. She had carried her face pure as a lily through all the foul and sooty air. There was a pure heart in her voice. Sin is of the soul, and this soul had not sinned! Let him that is without sin amongst you cast the first stone.
"Why did you dye that wonderful chestnut hair?" I asked her presently--and was sorry next minute for the pain that shot across her face, but I just wanted to hint at what I designed not to reveal fully till later on, and thus to hint too that it was not as one of the number of her defilers that I had sought her.
"Why," she said, "how do you know the colour of my hair? We have never met before."
"Yes, we have," I said, "and that was why I spoke to you to-night. I'll tell you where it was another time."
But after all I could not desist from telling her that night, for, as afterwards at her lodging we sat over the fire, talking as if we had known each other all our lives, there seemed no reason for an arbitrary delay.
I described to her the solitary moorland road, and the grey-gowned woman's figure in front of me, and the gig coming along to meet her, and the salutation of the two girls, and I told her all one look of her face had meant for me, and how I had wildly sought her in vain, and from that day to this had held her image in my heart.
And as I told her, she sobbed with her head against my knees and her great hair filling my lap with gold. In broken words she drew for me the other side of the picture of that long-past summer day.
Yes, the girl in the gig was her sister, and they were the only daughters of a farmer who had been rich once, but had come to ruin by drink and misfortune. They had been brought up from girls by an old grandmother, with whom the sister was living at the time of my seeing them. Yes, Tom was her husband. He was a doctor in the neighbourhood when he married her, and a man, I surmised, of some parts and promise, but, moving to town, he had fallen into loose ways, taken to drinking and gambling, and had finally deserted her for another woman--at the very moment when their first child was born. The child died "Thank God!" she added with sudden vehemence, and "I--well, you will wonder how I came to this, I wonder myself-- it has all happened but six months ago, and yet I seem to have forgotten--only the broken- hearted and the hungry would understand, if I could remember--and yet it was not life, certainly not life I wanted--and yet I couldn't die--"
The more I came to know Elizabeth and realise the rare delicacy of her nature, the simplicity of her mind, and the purity of her soul, the less was I able to comprehend the psychology of that false step which her great misery had forced her to take. For hers was not a sensual, pleasure-loving nature. In fact, there was a certain curious Puritanism about her, a Puritanism which found a startlingly incongruous and almost laughable expression in the Scripture almanac which hung on the wall at the end of her bed, and the Bible, and two or three Sunday-school stories which, with a copy of "Jane Eyre," were the only books that lay upon the circular mahogany table.
Once I ventured gently to chaff her about this religiosity of hers.
"But surely you believe in God, dear," she had answered, "you're not an atheist!"
I think an atheist, with all her experience of human monsters, was for her the depth of human depravity.
"No, dear," I had answered; "if you can believe in God, surely I can!"
I repeat that this gap in Elizabeth's psychology puzzled me, and it puzzles me still, but it puzzled me only as the method of working out some problem which after all had "come out right" might puzzle one. It was only the process that was obscure. The result was gold, whatever the dark process might be. Was it simply that Elizabeth was one of that rare few who can touch pitch and not be defiled?--or was it, I have sometimes wondered, an unconscious and after all a sound casuistry that had saved Elizabeth's soul, an instinctive philosophy that taught her, so to say, to lay a Sigurd's sword between her soul and body, and to argue that nothing can defile the body without the consent of the soul.
In deep natures there is always what one might call a lover's leap to be taken by those that would love them--something one cannot understand to be taken on trust, something even that one fears to be gladly adventured . . . all this, and more, I knew that I could safely venture for Elizabeth's sake, ere I kissed her white brow and stole away in the early hours of that winter's morning.
As I did so I had taken one of the sumptuous strands of her hair into my hand and kissed it too.
"Promise me to let this come back to its own beautiful colour," I had said, as I nodded to a little phial labelled "Peroxide of Hydrogen" on her mantelshelf.
"Would you like to?" she had said.
"Yes, do it for me."
One day some months after I cut from her dear head one long thick lock, one half of which was gold and the other half chestnut. I take it out and look at it as I write, and, as when I first cut it, it seems still a symbol of Elizabeth's life, the sun and the shadow, only that the gold was the shadow, and the chestnut was the sun.
The time came when the locks, from crown to tip, were all chestnut--but when it came I would have given the world for them to be gold again; for Elizabeth had said a curious thing when she had given me her promise.
"All right, dear," she had said, "but something tells me that when they are all brown again our happiness will be at an end."
"How long will that take?" I had said, trying to be gay, though an involuntary shudder had gone through me, less at her words than because of the strange conviction of her manner.
"About two years,--perhaps a little more," she said, answering me quite seriously, as she gravely measured the shining tresses, half her body's length, with her eye.Next