Chapter 15 - The Obstacle Beats Me
HOW long was I left alone in the carriage at the door of Mrs. Van Brandt's lodgings? Judging by my sensations, I waited half a life-time. Judging by my watch, I waited half an hour.
When my mother returned to me, the hope which I had entertained of a happy result from her interview with Mrs. Van Brandt was a hope abandoned before she had opened her lips. I saw, in her face, that an obstacle which was beyond my power of removal did indeed stand between me and the dearest wish of my life.
"Tell me the worst," I said, as we drove away from the house, "and tell it at once."
"I must tell it to you, George," my mother answered, sadly, "as she told it to me. She begged me herself to do that. 'We must disappoint him,' she said, 'but pray let it be done as gently as possible.' Beginning in those words, she confided to me the painful story which you know already--the story of her marriage. From that she passed to her meeting with you at Edinburgh, and to the circumstances which have led her to live as she is living now. This latter part of her narrative she especially requested me to repeat to you. Do you feel composed enough to hear it now? Or would you rather wait?"
"Let me hear it now, mother; and tell it, as nearly as you can, in her own words."
"I will repeat what she said to me, my dear, as faithfully as I can. After speaking of her father's death, she told me that she had only two relatives living. 'I have a married aunt in Glasgow, and a married aunt in London,' she said. 'When I left Edinburgh, I went to my aunt in London. She and my father had not been on good terms together; she considered that my father had neglected her. But his death had softened her toward him and toward me. She received me kindly, and she got me a situation in a shop. I kept my situation for three months, and then I was obliged to leave it.' "
My mother paused. I thought directly of the strange postscript which Mrs. Van Brandt had made me add to the letter that I wrote for her at the Edinburgh inn. In that case also she had only contemplated remaining in her employment for three months' time.
"Why was she obliged to leave her situation?" I asked.
"I put that question to her myself," replied my mother. "She made no direct reply--she changed color, and looked confused. 'I will tell you afterward, madam,' she said. 'Please let me go on now. My aunt was angry with me for leaving my employment--and she was more angry still, when I told her the reason. She said I had failed in duty toward her in not speaking frankly at first. We parted coolly. I had saved a little money from my wages; and I did well enough while my savings lasted. When they came to an end, I tried to get employment again, and I failed. My aunt said, and said truly, that her husband's income was barely enough to support his family: she could do nothing for me, and I could do nothing for myself. I wrote to my aunt at Glasgow, and received no answer. Starvation stared me in the face, when I saw in a newspaper an advertisement addressed to me by Mr. Van Brandt. He implored me to write to him; he declared that his life without me was too desolate to be endured; he solemnly promised that there should be no interruption to my tranquillity if I would return to him. If I had only had myself to think of, I would have begged my bread in the streets rather than return to him--' "
I interrupted the narrative at that point.
"What other person could she have had to think of?" I said.
"Is it possible, George," my mother rejoined, "that you have no suspicion of what she was alluding to when she said those words?"
The question passed by me unheeded: my thoughts were dwelling bitterly on Van Brandt and his advertisement. "She answered the advertisement, of course?" I said.
"And she saw Mr. Van Brandt," my mother went on. "She gave me no detailed account of the interview between them. 'He reminded me,' she said, 'of what I knew to be true--that the woman who had entrapped him into marrying her was an incurable drunkard, and that his ever living with her again was out of the question. Still she was alive, and she had a right to the name at least of his wife. I won't attempt to excuse my returning to him, knowing the circumstances as I did. I will only say that I could see no other choice before me, in my position at the time. It is needless to trouble you with what I have suffered since, or to speak of what I may suffer still. I am a lost woman. Be under no alarm, madam, about your son. I shall remember proudly to the end of my life that he once offered me the honor and the happiness of becoming his wife; but I know what is due to him and to you. I have seen him for the last time. The one thing that remains to be done is to satisfy him that our marriage is impossible. You are a mother; you will understand why I reveal the obstacle which stands between us--not to him, but to you.' She rose saying those words, and opened the folding-doors which led from the parlor into a back room. After an absence of a few moments only, she returned."
At that crowning point in the narrative, my mother stopped. Was she afraid to go on? or did she think it needless to say more?
"Well?" I said.
"Must I really tell it to you in words, George? Can't you guess how it ended, even yet?"
There were two difficulties in the way of my understanding her. I had a man's bluntness of perception, and I was half maddened by suspense. Incredible as it may appear, I was too dull to guess the truth even now.
"When she returned to me," my mother resumed, "she was not alone. She had with her a lovely little girl, just old enough to walk with the help of her mother's hand. She tenderly kissed the child, and then she put it on my lap. 'There is my only comfort,' she said, simply; 'and there is the obstacle to my ever becoming Mr. Germaine's wife.' "
Van Brandt's child! Van Brandt's child!
The postscript which she had made me add to my letter; the incomprehensible withdrawal from the employment in which she was prospering; the disheartening difficulties which had brought her to the brink of starvation; the degrading return to the man who had cruelly deceived her--all was explained, all was excused now! With an infant at the breast, how could she obtain a new employment? With famine staring her in the face, what else could the friendless woman do but return to the father of her child? What claim had I on her, by comparison with _him_? What did it matter, now that the poor creature secretly returned the love that I felt for her? There was the child, an obstacle between us--there was _his_ hold on her, now that he had got her back! What was _my_ hold worth? All social proprieties and all social laws answered the question: Nothing!
My head sunk on my breast; I received the blow in silence.
My good mother took my hand. "You understand it now, George?" she said, sorrowfully.
"Yes, mother; I understand it."
"There was one thing she wished me to say to you, my dear, which I have not mentioned yet. She entreats you not to suppose that she had the faintest idea of her situation when she attempted to destroy herself. Her first suspicion that it was possible she might become a mother was conveyed to her at Edinburgh, in a conversation with her aunt. It is impossible, George, not to feel compassionately toward this poor woman. Regrettable as her position is, I cannot see that she is to blame for it. She was the innocent victim of a vile fraud when that man married her; she has suffered undeservedly since; and she has behaved nobly to you and to me. I only do her justice in saying that she is a woman in a thousand--a woman worthy, under happier circumstances, to be my daughter and your wife. I feel _for_ you, and feel _with_ you, my dear--I do, with my whole heart."
So this scene in my life was, to all appearance, a scene closed forever. As it had been with my love, in the days of my boyhood, so it was again now with the love of my riper age!
Later in the day, when I had in some degree recovered my self-possession, I wrote to Mr. Van Brandt--as _she_ had foreseen I should write!--to apologize for breaking my engagement to dine with him.
Could I trust to a letter also, to say the farewell words for me to the woman whom I had loved and lost? No! It was better for her, and better for me, that I should not write. And yet the idea of leaving her in silence was more than my fortitude could endure. Her last words at parting (as they were repeated to me by my mother) had expressed the hope that I should not think hardly of her in the future. How could I assure her that I should think of her tenderly to the end of my life? My mother's delicate tact and true sympathy showed me the way. "Send a little present, George," she said, "to the child. You bear no malice to the poor little child?" God knows I was not hard on the child! I went out myself and bought her a toy. I brought it home, and before I sent it away, I pinned a slip of paper to it, bearing this inscription: "To your little daughter, from George Germaine." There is nothing very pathetic, I suppose, in those words. And yet I burst out crying when I had written them.
The next morning my mother and I set forth for my country-house in Perthshire. London was now unendurable to me. Traveling abroad I had tried already. Nothing was left but to go back to the Highlands, and to try what I could make of my life, with my mother still left to live for.