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Malbone: An Oldport Romance Thomas Wentworth Higginson

XIV. The Nemesis Of Fashion

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Sometimes in these moments of renewed affection he half gave words to his remorse, accused himself before her of unnamed wrong, and besought her to help him return to his better self. These were the most dangerous moments of all, for such appeals made tenderness and patience appear a duty; she must put away her doubts as sins, and hold him to her; she must refuse to see his signs of faltering faith, or treat them as mere symptoms of ill health. Should not a wife cling the closer to her husband in proportion as he seemed alienated through the wanderings of disease? And was not this her position? So she said within herself, and meanwhile it was not hard to penetrate her changing thoughts, at least for so keen an observer as Aunt Jane. Hope, at length, almost ceased to speak of Malbone, and revealed her grief by this evasion, as the robin reveals her nest by flitting from it.

Yet there were times when he really tried to force himself into a revival of this calmer emotion. He studied Hope's beauty with his eyes, he pondered on all her nobleness. He wished to bring his whole heart back to her--or at least wished that he wished it. But hearts that have educated themselves into faithlessness must sooner or later share the suffering they give. Love will be avenged on them. Nothing could have now recalled this epicure in passion, except, possibly, a little withholding or semi-coquetry on Hope's part, and this was utterly impossible for her. Absolute directness was a part of her nature; she could die, but not manouvre.

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It actually diminished Hope's hold on Philip, that she had at this time the whole field to herself. Emilia had gone for a few weeks to the mountains, with the household of which she was a guest. An ideal and unreasonable passion is strongest in absence, when the dream is all pure dream, and safe from the discrepancies of daily life. When the two girls were together, Emilia often showed herself so plainly Hope's inferior, that it jarred on Philip's fine perceptions. But in Emilia's absence the spell of temperament, or whatever else brought them together, resumed its sway unchecked; she became one great magnet of attraction, and all the currents of the universe appeared to flow from the direction where her eyes were shining. When she was out of sight, he needed to make no allowance for her defects, to reproach himself with no overt acts of disloyalty to Hope, to recognize no criticisms of his own intellect or conscience. He could resign himself to his reveries, and pursue them into new subtleties day by day.

There was Mrs. Meredith's house, too, where they had been so happy. And now the blinds were pitilessly closed, all but one where the Venetian slats had slipped, and stood half open as if some dainty fingers held them, and some lovely eyes looked through. He gazed so long and so often on that silent house,--by day, when the scorching sunshine searched its pores as if to purge away every haunting association, or by night, when the mantle of darkness hung tenderly above it, and seemed to collect the dear remembrances again,--that his fancy by degrees grew morbid, and its pictures unreal. "It is impossible," he one day thought to himself, "that she should have lived in that room so long, sat in that window, dreamed on that couch, reflected herself in that mirror, breathed that air, without somehow detaching invisible fibres of her being, delicate films of herself, that must gradually, she being gone, draw together into a separate individuality an image not quite bodiless, that replaces her in her absence, as the holy Theocrite was replaced by the angel. If there are ghosts of the dead, why not ghosts of the living also?" This lover's fancy so pleased him that he brought to bear upon it the whole force of his imagination, and it grew stronger day by day. To him, thenceforth, the house was haunted, and all its floating traces of herself visible or invisible,--from the ribbon that he saw entangled in the window-blind to every intangible and fancied atom she had imparted to the atmosphere,--came at last to organize themselves into one phantom shape for him and looked out, a wraith of Emilia, through those relentless blinds. As the vision grew more vivid, he saw the dim figure moving through the house, wan, restless, tender, lingering where they had lingered, haunting every nook where they had been happy once. In the windy moanings of the silent night he could put his ear at the keyhole, and could fancy that he heard the wild signals of her love and despair.

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Malbone: An Oldport Romance
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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