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XXXIX

Louis got up the next morning with an idea in his head. He had
dressed for a journey, and breakfasted hastily.

Before he had started Viviette came downstairs. Louis, who was now
greatly disturbed about her, went up to his sister and took her
hand.

'Aux grands maux les grands remedes,' he said, gravely. 'I have a
plan.'

'I have a dozen!' said she.

'You have?'

'Yes. But what are they worth? And yet there must--there MUST be a
way!'

'Viviette,' said Louis, 'promise that you will wait till I come home
to-night, before you do anything.'

Her distracted eyes showed slight comprehension of his request as
she said 'Yes.'

An hour after that time Louis entered the train at Warborne, and was
speedily crossing a country of ragged woodland, which, though
intruded on by the plough at places, remained largely intact from
prehistoric times, and still abounded with yews of gigantic growth
and oaks tufted with mistletoe. It was the route to Melchester.

On setting foot in that city he took the cathedral spire as his
guide, the place being strange to him; and went on till he reached
the archway dividing Melchester sacred from Melchester secular.
Thence he threaded his course into the precincts of the damp and
venerable Close, level as a bowling-green, and beloved of rooks, who
from their elm perches on high threatened any unwary gazer with the
mishap of Tobit. At the corner of this reposeful spot stood the
episcopal palace.

Louis entered the gates, rang the bell, and looked around. Here the
trees and rooks seemed older, if possible, than those in the Close
behind him. Everything was dignified, and he felt himself like
Punchinello in the king's chambers. Verily in the present case
Glanville was not a man to stick at trifles any more than his
illustrious prototype; and on the servant bringing a message that
his lordship would see him at once, Louis marched boldly in.

Through an old dark corridor, roofed with old dark beams, the
servant led the way to the heavily-moulded door of the Bishop's
room. Dr. Helmsdale was there, and welcomed Louis with considerable
stateliness. But his condescension was tempered with a curious
anxiety, and even with nervousness.

He asked in pointed tones after the health of Lady Constantine; if
Louis had brought an answer to the letter he had addressed to her a
day or two earlier; and if the contents of the letter, or of the
previous one, were known to him.

'I have brought no answer from her,' said Louis. 'But the contents
of your letter have been made known to me.'

Since entering the building Louis had more than once felt some
hesitation, and it might now, with a favouring manner from his
entertainer, have operated to deter him from going further with his
intention. But the Bishop had personal weaknesses that were fatal
to sympathy for more than a moment.

'Then I may speak in confidence to you as her nearest relative,'
said the prelate, 'and explain that I am now in a position with
regard to Lady Constantine which, in view of the important office I
hold, I should not have cared to place myself in unless I had felt
quite sure of not being refused by her. And hence it is a great
grief, and some mortification to me, that I was refused--owing, of
course, to the fact that I unwittingly risked making my proposal at
the very moment when she was under the influence of those strange
tidings, and therefore not herself, and scarcely able to judge what
was best for her.'

The Bishop's words disclosed a mind whose sensitive fear of danger
to its own dignity hindered it from criticism elsewhere. Things
might have been worse for Louis's Puck-like idea of mis-mating his
Hermia with this Demetrius.

Throwing a strong colour of earnestness into his mien he replied:
'Bishop, Viviette is my only sister; I am her only brother and
friend. I am alarmed for her health and state of mind. Hence I
have come to consult you on this very matter that you have broached.
I come absolutely without her knowledge, and I hope
unconventionality may be excused in me on the score of my anxiety
for her.'

'Certainly. I trust that the prospect opened up by my proposal,
combined with this other news, has not proved too much for her?'

'My sister is distracted and distressed, Bishop Helmsdale. She
wants comfort.'

'Not distressed by my letter?' said the Bishop, turning red. 'Has
it lowered me in her estimation?'

'On the contrary; while your disinterested offer was uppermost in
her mind she was a different woman. It is this other matter that
oppresses her. The result upon her of the recent discovery with
regard to the late Sir Blount Constantine is peculiar. To say that
he ill-used her in his lifetime is to understate a truth. He has
been dead now a considerable period; but this revival of his memory
operates as a sort of terror upon her. Images of the manner of Sir
Blount's death are with her night and day, intensified by a hideous
picture of the supposed scene, which was cruelly sent her. She
dreads being alone. Nothing will restore my poor Viviette to her
former cheerfulness but a distraction--a hope--a new prospect.'

'That is precisely what acceptance of my offer would afford.'

'Precisely,' said Louis, with great respect. 'But how to get her to
avail herself of it, after once refusing you, is the difficulty, and
my earnest problem.'

'Then we are quite at one.'

'We are. And it is to promote our wishes that I am come; since she
will do nothing of herself.'

'Then you can give me no hope of a reply to my second
communication?'

'None whatever--by letter,' said Louis. 'Her impression plainly is
that she cannot encourage your lordship. Yet, in the face of all
this reticence, the secret is that she loves you warmly.'

'Can you indeed assure me of that? Indeed, indeed!' said the good
Bishop musingly. 'Then I must try to see her. I begin to feel--to
feel strongly--that a course which would seem premature and
unbecoming in other cases would be true and proper conduct in this.
Her unhappy dilemmas--her unwonted position--yes, yes--I see it all!
I can afford to have some little misconstruction put upon my
motives. I will go and see her immediately. Her past has been a
cruel one; she wants sympathy; and with Heaven's help I'll give it.'

'I think the remedy lies that way,' said Louis gently. 'Some words
came from her one night which seemed to show it. I was standing on
the terrace: I heard somebody sigh in the dark, and found that it
was she. I asked her what was the matter, and gently pressed her on
this subject of boldly and promptly contracting a new marriage as a
means of dispersing the horrors of the old. Her answer implied that
she would have no objection to do it, and to do it at once, provided
she could remain externally passive in the matter, that she would
tacitly yield, in fact, to pressure, but would not meet solicitation
half-way. Now, Bishop Helmsdale, you see what has prompted me. On
the one hand is a dignitary of high position and integrity, to say
no more, who is anxious to save her from the gloom of her situation;
on the other is this sister, who will not make known to you her
willingness to be saved--partly from apathy, partly from a fear that
she may be thought forward in responding favourably at so early a
moment, partly also, perhaps, from a modest sense that there would
be some sacrifice on your part in allying yourself with a woman of
her secluded and sad experience.'

'O, there is no sacrifice! Quite otherwise. I care greatly for
this alliance, Mr. Glanville. Your sister is very dear to me.
Moreover, the advantages her mind would derive from the enlarged
field of activity that the position of a bishop's wife would afford,
are palpable. I am induced to think that an early settlement of the
question--an immediate coming to the point--which might be called
too early in the majority of cases, would be a right and considerate
tenderness here. My only dread is that she should think an
immediate following up of the subject premature. And the risk of a
rebuff a second time is one which, as you must perceive, it would be
highly unbecoming in me to run.'

'I think the risk would be small, if your lordship would approach
her frankly. Write she will not, I am assured; and knowing that,
and having her interest at heart, I was induced to come to you and
make this candid statement in reply to your communication. Her late
husband having been virtually dead these four or five years,
believed dead two years, and actually dead nearly one, no reproach
could attach to her if she were to contract another union to-
morrow.'

'I agree with you, Mr. Glanville,' said the Bishop warmly. 'I will
think this over. Her motive in not replying I can quite understand:
your motive in coming I can also understand and appreciate in a
brother. If I feel convinced that it would be a seemly and
expedient thing I will come to Welland to-morrow.'

The point to which Louis had brought the Bishop being so
satisfactory, he feared to endanger it by another word. He went
away almost hurriedly, and at once left the precincts of the
cathedral, lest another encounter with Dr. Helmsdale should lead the
latter to take a new and slower view of his duties as Viviette's
suitor.

He reached Welland by dinner-time, and came upon Viviette in the
same pensive mood in which he had left her. It seemed she had
hardly moved since.

'Have you discovered Swithin St. Cleeve's address?' she said,
without looking up at him.

'No,' said Louis.

Then she broke out with indescribable anguish: 'But you asked me to
wait till this evening; and I have waited through the long day, in
the belief that your words meant something, and that you would bring
good tidings! And now I find your words meant nothing, and you have
NOT brought good tidings!'

Louis could not decide for a moment what to say to this. Should he
venture to give her thoughts a new course by a revelation of his
design? No: it would be better to prolong her despair yet another
night, and spring relief upon her suddenly, that she might jump at
it and commit herself without an interval for reflection on certain
aspects of the proceeding.

Nothing, accordingly, did he say; and conjecturing that she would be
hardly likely to take any desperate step that night, he left her to
herself.

His anxiety at this crisis continued to be great. Everything
depended on the result of the Bishop's self-communion. Would he or
would he not come the next day? Perhaps instead of his important
presence there would appear a letter postponing the visit
indefinitely. If so, all would be lost.

Louis's suspense kept him awake, and he was not alone in his
sleeplessness. Through the night he heard his sister walking up and
down, in a state which betokened that for every pang of grief she
had disclosed, twice as many had remained unspoken. He almost
feared that she might seek to end her existence by violence, so
unreasonably sudden were her moods; and he lay and longed for the
day.

It was morning. She came down the same as usual, and asked if there
had arrived any telegram or letter; but there was neither. Louis
avoided her, knowing that nothing he could say just then would do
her any good.

No communication had reached him from the Bishop, and that looked
well. By one ruse and another, as the day went on, he led her away
from contemplating the remote possibility of hearing from Swithin,
and induced her to look at the worst contingency as her probable
fate. It seemed as if she really made up her mind to this, for by
the afternoon she was apathetic, like a woman who neither hoped nor
feared.

And then a fly drove up to the door.

Louis, who had been standing in the hall the greater part of that
day, glanced out through a private window, and went to Viviette.
'The Bishop has called,' he said. 'Be ready to see him.'

'The Bishop of Melchester?' said Viviette, bewildered.

'Yes. I asked him to come. He comes for an answer to his letters.'

'An answer--to--his--letters?' she murmured.

'An immediate reply of yes or no.'

Her face showed the workings of her mind. How entirely an answer of
assent, at once acted on for better or for worse, would clear the
spectre from her path, there needed no tongue to tell. It would,
moreover, accomplish that end without involving the impoverishment
of Swithin--the inevitable result if she had adopted the legitimate
road out of her trouble. Hitherto there had seemed to her dismayed
mind, unenlightened as to any course save one of honesty, no
possible achievement of BOTH her desires--the saving of Swithin and
the saving of herself. But behold, here was a way! A tempter had
shown it to her. It involved a great wrong, which to her had quite
obscured its feasibility. But she perceived now that it was indeed
a way. Nature was forcing her hand at this game; and to what will
not nature compel her weaker victims, in extremes?

Louis left her to think it out. When he reached the drawing-room
Dr. Helmsdale was standing there with the air of a man too good for
his destiny--which, to be just to him, was not far from the truth
this time.

'Have you broken my message to her?' asked the Bishop sonorously.

'Not your message; your visit,' said Louis. 'I leave the rest in
your Lordship's hands. I have done all I can for her.'

She was in her own small room to-day; and, feeling that it must be a
bold stroke or none, he led the Bishop across the hall till he
reached her apartment and opened the door; but instead of following
he shut it behind his visitor.

Then Glanville passed an anxious time. He walked from the foot of
the staircase to the star of old swords and pikes on the wall; from
these to the stags' horns; thence down the corridor as far as the
door, where he could hear murmuring inside, but not its import. The
longer they remained closeted the more excited did he become. That
she had not peremptorily negatived the proposal at the outset was a
strong sign of its success. It showed that she had admitted
argument; and the worthy Bishop had a pleader on his side whom he
knew little of. The very weather seemed to favour Dr. Helmsdale in
his suit. A blusterous wind had blown up from the west, howling in
the smokeless chimneys, and suggesting to the feminine mind storms
at sea, a tossing ocean, and the hopeless inaccessibility of all
astronomers and men on the other side of the same.

The Bishop had entered Viviette's room at ten minutes past three.
The long hand of the hall clock lay level at forty-five minutes past
when the knob of the door moved, and he came out. Louis met him
where the passage joined the hall.

Dr. Helmsdale was decidedly in an emotional state, his face being
slightly flushed. Louis looked his anxious inquiry without speaking
it.

'She accepts me,' said the Bishop in a low voice. 'And the wedding
is to be soon. Her long solitude and sufferings justify haste.
What you said was true. Sheer weariness and distraction have driven
her to me. She was quite passive at last, and agreed to anything I
proposed--such is the persuasive force of trained logical reasoning!
A good and wise woman, she perceived what a true shelter from
sadness was offered in me, and was not the one to despise Heaven's
gift.'





Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy
Category:
General Fiction
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