Thomas Wingfold, Curate - vol.2

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The morning after Wingfold's second visit, Lingard, much to his sister's surprise, partly to her pleasure, and somewhat to her consternation, asked for his clothes: he wanted to get up. So little energy had he hitherto shown, so weak was he, and so frequent had been the symptoms of returning fever, that the doctor had not yet thought of advising more than an hour's sitting while his bed was made comfortable. And Helen had felt that she had him, if not safe, yet safer in bed than he could be elsewhere.

His wish to rise was a sign that he was getting better. But could she wish him to get better, seeing every hour threatened to be an hour of torture? On the other hand, she could not but hope that, for the last day or so, his mind had been a little more at ease. Assuredly the light in his eye was less troubled: perhaps he saw prospect of such mental quiet as might render life endurable.

He declined assistance, and Helen, having got him everything he required, left the room to wait within hearing. It took him a long time to dress, but he had resolved to do it himself, and at length called Helen.

She found he looked worse in his clothes--fearfully worn and white! Ah, what a sad ghost he was of his former sunny self! Helen turned her eyes from him, that he might not see how changed she thought him, and there were the trees in the garden and the meadows and the park beyond, bathing in the strength of the sun, betwixt the blue sky and the green earth! "What a hideous world it is!" she said to herself. She was not yet persuaded, like her cousin, that it was the best possible world--only that, unfortunately, not much was possible in worlds.

"Will you get me something, Helen," he said. "Mr. Wingfold will be here, and I want to be able to talk to him."

It was the first time he had asked for food, though he had seldom refused to take what she brought him. She made him lie on the couch, and gave orders that, if Mr. Wingfold called, he should be shown up at once. Leopold's face brightened; he actually looked pleased when his soup came. When Wingfold was announced, he grew for a moment radiant.

Helen received the curate respectfully, but not very cordially: SHE could not make Leopold's face shine!

"Would your brother like to see Mr. Polwarth?" asked the curate rather abruptly.

"I will see anyone you would like me to see. Mr. Wingfold," answered Liugard for himself, with a decision that clearly indicated returning strength.

"But, Leopold, you know it is hardly to be desired," suggested Helen, "that more persons--"

"I don't know that," interrupted Leopold with strange expression.

"Perhaps I had better tell you, Miss Lingard," said the curate, "that it was Mr. Polwarth who found the thing I gave you. After your visit, he could not fail to put things together, and had he been a common man, I should have judged it prudent to tell him for the sake of secrecy what I have told him for the sake of counsel. I repeat in your brother's hearing what I have said to you, that he is the wisest and best man I have ever known.--I left him in the meadow at the foot of the garden. He is suffering to-day, and I wanted to save him the longer walk. If you will allow me, I will go and bring him in."

"Do," said Leopold. "Think, Helen!--If he is the wisest and best man Mr. Wingfold ever knew! Tell him where to find the key."

"I will go myself," she said--with a yielding to the inevitable.

When she opened the door, there was the little man seated a few yards off on the grass. He had plucked a cowslip and was looking into it so intently that he neither heard nor saw her.

"Mr. Polwarth!" said Helen.

He lifted his eyes, rose, and taking off his hat, said with a smile,

"I was looking in the cowslip for the spots which the fairy, in the Midsummer Night's Dream, calls 'rubies.'--How is your brother, Miss Lingard?"

Helen answered with cold politeness, and led the way up the garden with considerably more stateliness of demeanour than was necessary.

When he followed her into the room, "This is Mr. Polwarth, Leopold," said the curate, rising respectfully. "You may speak to him as freely as to me, and he is far more able to give you counsel than I am."

"Would you mind shaking hands with me, Mr. Polwarth?" said Leopold, holding out his shadowy hand.

Polwarth took it with the kindest of smiles, and held it a moment in his.

"You think me an odd-looking creature--don't you?" he said; "but just because God made me so, I have been compelled to think about things I might otherwise have forgotten, and that is why Mr. Wingfold would have me come to see you."

The curate placed a chair for him, and the gate-keeper sat down. Helen seated herself a little way off in the window, pretending, or hardly more, to hem a handkerchief. Leopold's big eyes went wandering from one to the other of the two men.

"What a horrible world it is!" was the thought that kept humming on like an evil insect in Helen's heart. "I am sorry to see you suffer so much," said Leopold kindly, for he heard the laboured breath of the little man, and saw the heaving of his chest.

"It does not greatly trouble me," returned Polwarth. "It is not my fault, you see," he added with a smile; "at least I don't think it is."

"You are happy to suffer without fault," said Leopold. "It is because it is just that my punishment seems greater than I can bear."

"You need God's forgiveness in your soul."

"I don't see how that should do anything for me."

"I do not mean it would take away your suffering; but it would make you able to bear it. It would be fresh life in you."

"I can't see why it should. I can't feel that I have wronged God. I have been trying to feel it, Mr. Wingfold, ever since you talked to me. But I don't know God, and I only feel what I have done to Emmeline. If I said to God, 'Pardon me,' and he said to me, 'I do pardon you,' I should feel just the same. What could that do to set anything right that I have set wrong? I am what I am, and what I ever shall be, and the injury which came from me, cleaves fast to her, and is my wrong wherever she is."

He hid his face in his hands.

"What use CAN it be to torture the poor boy so?" said Helen to herself.

The two men sat silent. Then Polwarth said:

"I doubt if there is any use in trying to feel. And no amount of trying could enable you to imagine what God's forgiveness is like to those that have it in them. Tell me something more you do feel, Mr. Lingard."

"I feel that I could kill myself to bring her back to life."

"That is, you would gladly make amends for the wrong you have done her."

"I would give my life, my soul, to do it."

"And there is nothing you can do for it?"

Helen began to tremble.

"What is there that can be done?" answered Leopold. "It does seem hard that a man should be made capable of doing things that he is not made capable of undoing again."

"It is indeed a terrible thought! And even the smallest wrong is, perhaps, too awful a thing for created being ever to set right again."

"You mean it takes God to do that?"

"I do."

"I don't see how he ever could set some things right."

"He would not be God if he could not or would not do for his creature what that creature cannot do for himself, and must have done for him or lose his life."

"Then he isn't God, for he can't help me."

"Because you don't see what can be done, you say God can do nothing--which is as much as to say there cannot be more within his scope than there is within yours! One thing is clear, that, if he saw no more than what lies within your ken, he could not be God. The very impossibility you see in the thing points to the region wherein God works."

"I don't quite understand you. But it doesn't matter. It's all a horrible mess. I wish I was dead."

"My dear sir, is it reasonable that because a being so capable of going wrong finds himself incapable of setting right, he should judge it useless to cry to that being who called him into being to come to his aid?--and that in the face of the story--if it were but an old legend, worn and disfigured--that he took upon himself our sins?"

Leopold hung his head.

"God needs no making up to him," the gate-keeper went on--"so far from it that he takes our sins on himself, that he may clear them out of the universe. How could he say he took our sins upon him, if he could not make amends for them to those they had hurt?"

"Ah!" cried Leopold, with a profound sigh, "--if that could be!--if he could really do that!"

"Why, of course he can do that!" said Polwarth. "What sort of watchmaker were he who could not set right the watches and clocks himself made?"

"But the hearts of men and women!" "Which God does far more than make!" interposed Polwarth. "That a being able to make another self-conscious being distinct from himself, should be able also to set right whatever that being could set wrong, seems to me to follow of simple necessity. He might even, should that be fit, put the man himself in the way of making up for what he had done, or at least put it in his power to ask and receive a forgiveness that would set all right between him and the person wronged. One of the painful things in the dogma of the endless loss of the wicked is that it leaves no room for the righteous to make up to them for the wrongs they did them in this life. For the righteous do the wicked far more wrong than they think--the righteous being all the time, in reality, the wealthy, and the wicked the poor. But it is a blessed word that there are first that shall be last, and last that shall be first."

Helen stared. This last sounded to her mere raving madness, and she thought how wrong she had been to allow such fanatics to gain power over her poor Leopold--who sat before them whiter than ever, and with what she took for a wilder gleam in his eye.

"Is there not the might of love, and all eternity for it to work in, to set things right?" ended Polwarth.

"O God!" cried Leopold, "if that might be true! That would be a gift indeed--the power to make up for the wrong I have done!"

He rose from the couch--slowly, sedately, I had almost said formally, like one with a settled object, and stood erect, swaying a little from weakness.

"Mr. Wingfold," he said, "I want of you one more favour: will you take me to the nearest magistrate? I wish to give myself up."

Helen started up and came forward, paler than the sick man.

"Mr. Wingfold! Mr. Polwarth!" she said, and turned from the one to the other, "the boy is not himself. You will never allow him to do such a mad thing!"

"It may be the right thing," said the curate to Leopold, "but we must not act without consideration."

"I have considered and considered it for days--for weeks," returned Leopold; "but until this moment I never had the courage to resolve on the plainest of duties.--Helen, if I were to go up to the throne of God with the psalm in my mouth, and say to him, 'Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,' it would be false; for I have sinned against every man, woman, and child in England at least, and I will repudiate myself. To the throne of God I want to go, and there is no way thither for me but through the gate of the law."

"Leopold!" pleaded Helen, as if for her own life with some hard judge, "what good can it do to send another life after the one that is gone? It cannot bring it back, or heal a single sorrow for its loss."

"Except perhaps my own," said Leopold, in a feeble voice, but not the less in a determined tone.

"Live till God send for you," persisted Helen, heedless of his words. "You can give your life to make up for the wrong you have done in a thousand better ways: that would be but to throw it in the dirt. There is so much good waiting to be done!"

Leopold sank on the couch.

"I am sitting down again, Helen, only because I am not able to stand," he said. "I WILL go. Don't talk to me about doing good! Whatever I touched I should but smear with blood. I want the responsibility of my own life taken off me. I am like the horrible creature Frankenstein made--one that has no right to existence--and at the same time like the maker of it, who is accountable for that existence. I am a blot on God's creation that must be wiped off. For this my strength is given back to me, and I am once more able to will and resolve. You will find I can act too. Helen, if you will indeed be my sister, you must NOT prevent me now. I know it is hard upon you, awfully hard. I know I am dragging your life down with mine, but I cannot help it. If I don't do it, I shall but go out of one madness into another, ever a deeper, until the devils can't hold me. Mr. Polwarth, is it not my duty to give myself up? Ought not the evil thing to be made manifest and swept out of the earth? Most people grant it a man's first duty to take care of his life: that is the only thing I can do for mine. It is now a filthy pool with a corpse in it:--I would clean it out--have the thing buried at least, though never forgotten--never, never forgotten. Then I shall die and go to God and see what he can do for me."

"Why should you put it off till then?" said Polwarth. "Why not go to him at once and tell him all?"

As if it had been Samuel at the command of Eli, Leopold rose and crept feebly across the floor to the dressing-room, entered it, and closed the door.

Then Helen turned upon Wingfold with a face white as linen, and eyes flashing with troubled wrath. The tigress-mother swelled in her heart, and she looked like a Maenad indeed.

"Is this then your religion?" she cried with quivering nostril. "Would he you dare to call your master have stolen into the house of a neighbour to play upon the weakness of a poor lad suffering from brain-fever? A fine trophy of your persuasive power and priestly craft you would make of him! What is it to you whether he confesses his sins or not? If he confesses them to him you say is your God, is not that enough? For shame, gentlemen!"

She ceased, and stood trembling and flashing--a human thunder-cloud. Neither of the men cared to assert innocence, because, although they had not advised the step, they entirely approved of it.

A moment more, and her anger suddenly went out. She burst into tears, and falling on her knees before the curate, begged and prayed like a child condemned to some frightful punishment. It was terrible to Wingfold to see a woman in such an agony of prayer--to one who would not grant it--and that one himself. In vain he sought to raise her.

"If you do not save Leopold, I will kill myself," she cried, "and my blood will be on your head."

"The only way to save your brother is to strengthen him to do his duty, whatever that may be."

The hot fit of her mental fever returned. She sprang to her feet, and her face turned again almost like that of a corpse with pale wrath.

"Leave the house!" she said, turning sharply upon Polwarth, who stood solemn and calm at Wingfold's side, a step behind. It was wonderful what an unconscious dignity radiated from him.

"If my friend goes, I go too," said Wingfold. "But I must first tell your brother why."

He made a step towards the dressing-room.

But now came a fresh change of mood upon Helen. She darted between him and the door, and stood there with such a look of humble entreaty as went to his very heart, and all but unmanned him. Ah, how lovely she looked in the silent prayer of tears! But not even her tears could turn Wingfold from what seemed his duty. They could only bring answering tears from the depth of a tender heart. She saw he would not flinch.

"Then may God do to you as you have done to me and mine!" she said.

"Amen!" returned Wingfold and Polwarth together.

The door of the dressing-room opened, and out came Leopold, his white face shining.

"God has heard me!" he cried.

"How do you know that?" said his sister, in the hoarse accents of unbelieving despair.

"Because he has made me strong to do my duty. He has reminded me that another man may be accused of my crime, and now to conceal myself were to double my baseness."

"It will be time enough to think of that when there is a necessity for it. The thing you imagine may never happen," said Helen, in the same unnatural voice.

"Leave it," cried Leopold, "until an innocent man shall have suffered the torture and shame of a false accusation, that a guilty man may a little longer act the hypocrite! No, Helen, I have not fallen so low as that yet. Believe me, this is the only living hour I have had since I did the deed!"

But as he spoke, the light died out of his face, and ere they could reach him he had fallen heavily on the floor.

"You have killed him!" cried Helen, in a stifled shriek, for all the time she had never forgotten that her aunt might hear.

But the same moment she caught from his condition a lurid hope.

"Go, I beg of you," she said--"by the window there, before my aunt comes. She must have heard the fall. There is the key of the door below."

The men obeyed, and left the house in silence.

It was some time before Leopold returned to consciousness. He made no resistance to being again put to bed, where he lay in extreme exhaustion.

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