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Malbone: An Oldport Romance Thomas Wentworth Higginson

XIV. The Nemesis Of Fashion

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MALBONE was a person of such ready, emotional nature, and such easy expression, that it was not hard for Hope to hide from herself the gradual ebbing of his love. Whenever he was fresh and full of spirits, he had enough to overflow upon her and every one. But when other thoughts and cares were weighing on him, he could not share them, nor could he at such times, out of the narrowing channel of his own life, furnish more than a few scanty drops for her.

At these times he watched with torturing fluctuations the signs of solicitude in Hope, the timid withdrawing of her fingers, the questioning of her eyes, the weary drooping of her whole expression. Often he cursed himself as a wretch for paining that pure and noble heart. Yet there were moments when a vague inexpressible delight stole in; a glimmering of shame-faced pleasure as he pondered on this visible dawning of distrust; a sudden taste of freedom in being no longer fettered by her confidence. By degrees he led himself, still half ashamed, to the dream that she might yet be somehow weaned from him, and leave his conscience free. By constantly building upon this thought, and putting aside all others, he made room upon the waste of his life for a house of cards, glittering, unsubstantial, lofty,--until there came some sudden breath that swept it away; and then he began on it again.

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In one of those moments of more familiar faith which still alternated with these cold, sad intervals, she asked him with some sudden impulse, how he should feel if she loved another? She said it, as if guided by an instinct, to sound the depth of his love for her. Starting with amazement, he looked at her, and then, divining her feeling, he only replied by an expression of reproach, and by kissing her hands with an habitual tenderness that had grown easy to him,--and they were such lovely hands! But his heart told him that no spent swimmer ever transferred more eagerly to another's arms some precious burden beneath which he was consciously sinking, than he would yield her up to any one whom she would consent to love, and who could be trusted with the treasure. Until that ecstasy of release should come, he would do his duty,--yes, his duty.

When these flushed hopes grew pale, as they soon did, he could at least play with the wan fancies that took their place. Hour after hour, while she lavished upon him the sweetness of her devotion, he was half consciously shaping with his tongue some word of terrible revealing that should divide them like a spell, if spoken, and then recalling it before it left his lips. Daily and hourly he felt the last agony of a weak and passionate nature,--to dream of one woman in another's arms.

She, too, watched him with an ever-increasing instinct of danger, studied with a chilly terror the workings of his face, weighed and reweighed his words in absence, agonized herself with new and ever new suspicions; and then, when these had accumulated beyond endurance, seized them convulsively and threw them all away. Then, coming back to him with a great overwhelming ardor of affection, she poured upon him more and more in proportion as he gave her less.

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Malbone: An Oldport Romance
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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