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CHAPTER XXIII
"SEEK SHELTER IN THE SHADOW OF THE TOMB."

Of the people who came to look upon the grave, some to lay a tributary flower upon the stone, and some to pluck a leaf or two of acanthus or violet, all hitherto had been strangers to Isola, had gone away without seeing her, or had glanced indifferently, as at one more unfortunate with a sketching-block, spoiling paper in the pursuit of the unattainable. There were so many amateur artists sitting about in the outskirts of the city, that such a figure in a romantic spot challenged nobody's attention. So far people had come and gone, and had taken no notice; but one afternoon a figure in a long black cassock came suddenly between her and the golden light, and Isola looked up with a cry of surprise on recognizing Father Rodwell.

[Pg 256]

"You did not expect to see me here," he said, holding out his hand.

She had risen from her seat on the low grassy bank, and she gave him her hand, half in pleasure, half in a nervous apprehension which his keen eye was quick to perceive. His life had been spent in dealings with the souls of men and women, and he had learnt to read those living pages as easily as he read Plato or Spinosa.

"No," she said. "I had no idea you were in Rome. You told us you were going back to London."

"I meant to go back to London and hard work, but my doctor insisted upon my prolonging my holiday for a few weeks, so I came here instead. Rome always draws me, and is always new. Rome gives me fresh life and fresh power when my heart and brain have been feeling benumbed and dead. I am glad they brought you here, Mrs. Disney. You were looking languid and ill when you left San Remo. I hope Rome has revivified you."

He looked at her earnestly. Her face had been in shadow until now, but as she moved into the sunlight, he saw that the lines had sharpened in the pale, wan face, and that there was the stamp of wasting disease in the hollow cheeks, and about the sunken eyes, and in the almost bloodless lips. As he looked at her in friendliest commiseration those pathetic grey eyes—whose expression had baffled his power of interpretation hitherto—filled suddenly with tears, and in the next moment she clasped her hands before her face in an agony of grief.

The Italian Testament which she had been reading when he approached dropped at her feet, and stooping to pick it up Father Rodwell saw that it was open at the fourth chapter of St. John, the story of the woman of Samaria, the sinner with whom Christ talked at the well. A leaf from Shelley's grave lay upon the book, as if to mark where Isola had been reading, and Father Rodwell's quick glance saw that the page was blotted with tears.

"My dear Mrs. Disney," he said gently, "is there anything[Pg 257] wrong at home? Your husband, your boy are well, I hope?"

"Yes, thank God, they are both well. God has been very good to me. He might have taken those I love. He has been merciful."

"He is merciful to all His creatures; though there are times when His dealings with us seem very hard. Oh, Mrs. Disney, you can't think how difficult a priest's office is sometimes when he has to reconcile the afflicted with the Providence that has seen fit to lay some heavy burden on them. They cannot understand; they cannot say it is well. They cannot kiss the rod. But as you say, God has been good to you. Your lines have been set in pleasant places. You are hedged round and sheltered by love. I never saw greater affection in husband for wife than I have seen in your husband. I never saw sister more devoted to sister than your sister-in-law is to you."

She had sunk again into a sitting position on the low bank at the foot of the wall. Her face was still hidden, and her sobs came faster as he spoke to her.

"Why should you grieve at the thought of their love? Is it because it may please God to take you from them in the morning of your life? If it is that dread which agitates you I entreat you to put it aside. There is nothing in your case that forbids hope, and hope will do much to help your recovery. You should tell yourself how valuable your life is to those who love you. The thought of their affection should give you courage to struggle against apathy and languor. Believe me, invalids have their condition a great deal more in their own power than they are inclined to believe. So much can be overcome where the spirit is strong and brave, where faith and hope fight against bodily weakness. You ought not to be sitting alone here in this saddening spot. It is lovely, but with the beauty of death. You ought to be driving out to Frascati or to Tivoli with your husband. You ought to be watching the carriages in the Pincian Gardens, or amusing yourself in one of the picture galleries."

[Pg 258]

"I had rather be alone," she said, wiping away her tears, and in some degree recovering her self-possession.

"That is a morbid fancy, and one that hinders your recovery."

"I have no wish to recover. I only want to die."

"My dear Mrs. Disney, it is your duty to fight against these melancholy moods. Can you be indifferent to your husband's feelings? Have you not the mother's natural desire to watch over your child's early years, to see him reach manhood?"

"No, no, no!" she cried passionately. "I have had enough of life. They are dear to me, very dear. No wife ever loved and honoured her husband more than I love and honour mine—but it is all over, it is past, and ended. I am more than resigned to death—I am thankful that God has called me away."

He watched her closely as she spoke, watched her with his hand upon hers, which was cold as ice. He had heard such words before from the early doomed, but they had been accompanied by religious exaltation; they had been the outpouring of a faith that saw the gates of heaven opened and the Son of man sitting in glory—of a love that longed to be with God. Here there was no sign of hope or exaltation. There were only the tokens of despair.

He remembered how agitated he had seen her many times in the little church at San Remo, and how, although hanging eagerly upon his preaching, she had persistently avoided anything like serious conversation with him upon the few occasions when he had found himself alone with her.

He had her Testament still in his hand, and looking down at the tear-stained page it seemed to him that there lay the clue to her melancholy.

"You have been reading the story of the woman of Samaria," he said.

"Yes."

"And you have read that other story of her who knelt in[Pg 259] the dust at her Saviour's feet, and to whom He said, 'Neither do I condemn thee.'"

"Yes."

"Is there anything in either of those stories to sadden you more than the thought of sin and sorrow saddens all of us?"

She looked at him shrinkingly, pale as death, as if he had a dagger in his hand ready to strike her.

"No, I don't suppose there is anything that goes home to my heart any more than to other hearts," she said, after a pause, trying to speak carelessly. "We are all sinners. The Gospel teaches us that in every line! We are none of us altogether worthy—not even my husband, I suppose, although to me he seems a perfect Christian."

"I can believe that he is a Christian, Mrs. Disney, and a man of strong convictions. If he had wronged anybody, I do not think he would rest till he had atoned for that wrong."

"I am sure he would not. He would do his uttermost to atone. And so would I—although I do not pretend to be half so good a Christian as he is. I would do all in my power to atone for any wrong I had done to one I loved."

"As you love your husband, for instance."

"Yes, as I love him. He is first in the world for me. Dear as my child is, Martin must always be first."

"And you would not for the world do him any wrong?" pursued the priest, more and more earnest as he went on, pale with emotion, his whole power of observation concentrated upon the whitening face and lowered eyelids of the woman sitting at his feet.

"Not for the world, not for my life," she said, with her hands tightly clasped, her eyes still hidden under the heavy lids, tearless now—and with dry and quivering lips, from which the words came with a dull and soulless sound. "I would die to save him an hour's pain. I would fling away this wretched life rather than grieve him for a moment."

[Pg 260]

"Poor soul!" murmured the priest, pitying that debt of self-abasement which he understood so well, under whatsoever guise she might hide her contrition. "Poor soul, you talk too lightly of that great mystery which we should all face in a spirit of deep humility. Do you feel that you can contemplate that passage through death to a new life without fear of the issue? Have you no reckoning to make with the God who pardons repentant sinners? Do you stand before Him with a clear conscience—having kept nothing back—cherished no hidden sin?"

"No one can be without sin in His sight. Do you suppose that I am sinless, or that I have ever believed myself sinless? I know how weak and poor a thing I am—a worm in the sight of Him who rules the universe. But if—if He cares for such as I, He knows that I am sorry for every sinful thought and every sinful act of my life."

She spoke in short sentences, each phrase broken by a sob. She felt as if he were tearing out her heart, this man who had been heretofore so kindly and indulgent in his speech and manner that he seemed to make religion an easy thing, a garment as loose and expansive as philosophy itself. And, now, all at once he appeared before her as a judge, searching out her heart, cruel, inflexible, weighing her in the balance, and finding her wanting.

"If I am sorry," she murmured, between her sobs, "what more can God or man require of me?"

"Nothing, if your sorrow is that true sorrow which means repentance, and goes hand-in-hand with atonement. Forgive me, my dear friend, for presuming to speak unreservedly to you. If I try to find out the nature of your wound it is only that I may help you to heal it. Ever since I have known you I have seen the tokens of a wounded heart, a bruised and broken spirit. I saw you surrounded with all the blessings that make woman's lot happy. It was hardly possible to conceive fairer surroundings and truer friends. Can you wonder, then, if my compassionate interest was awakened by the indications of a deep-rooted sorrow for which there was[Pg 261] no apparent cause? I saw your emotion in church, saw how quickly your heart and mind responded to the appeal of religion—saw in you a soul attuned to heavenly things, and day by day my interest in you and yours grew stronger. The hope of seeing you again, of helping you to bear your burden, of ultimately lightening it, was one of my reasons for coming to Rome. I felt somehow that you and I had not met in vain—that my power to move you was not without a meaning in both our lives; that if, as I thought, you needed spiritual help and comfort, it was my vocation to help and comfort you. And so I came to Rome, and so I found out where you spent your quiet hours, and so I have followed you here this afternoon. Tell me, Mrs. Disney, did I presume too much? Was it the preacher's vanity or the priest's intuition that spoke?"

"It was intuition," she said. "You saw that I had sinned. None but a sinner could shed such tears—could so feel the terror of God's wrath."

"It is of His love I want you to think. Of His immeasurable love and pity. Of His Son's Divine compassion. If you have any special need of His pardon; if there is any sinful secret locked in your heart; do not let the golden hours go by—the time meet for repentance."

"I have repented," she cried piteously. "My life has been one long repentance ever since my sin."

"And your husband—he who so fondly loves you—he knows all, and has forgiven all?"

"Knows!" The word broke from her lips almost in a shriek of horror. "He knows nothing—he must never know. He would despise me, leave me to die alone, while he went far away from me, to the very end of the world. He would take his son with him. I should be left alone—alone to face death—the most desolate creature God ever looked upon. Oh, Father Rodwell, why have you wrung my secret from me?" she cried, grovelling on her knees in the long grass beside him, clinging to his hand as he bent over her, gravely compassionate, deeply moved by her distress. "How cruel[Pg 262] to question—to torture me—how cruel to use your power of reading guilty hearts. You will tell my husband, who so loves and trusts me. You will tell him what a guilty wretch I am."

"Tell him, Mrs. Disney! Can you forget that I am a priest—for whom the sinner's confession is sacred? Do you think I have never talked with the tempted and the sorrowing before to-day? Do you think that grief such as yours can be an unknown experience to a man who has worked in a crowded London parish for nearly twenty years? I wanted to know the worst, so that I might be able to advise and to console you. If I have questioned you to-day, it has been as a priest has the right to question; and this place where you and I have met to-day is in my sight as sacred as the confessional. You need have no fear that I shall tell your husband the secret of your sorrow. All I will do is to help you to find strength to tell him yourself."

"Oh no, no, no!" she cried piteously. "Never! never! I can die, I am prepared to die; but I can never tell him—I cannot, I dare not."

"Yet you could dare to die with a lie upon your lips—you who are ready to meet your Judge—you whose whole life is a lie—you who have cheated and betrayed the best of men. Oh, Mrs. Disney, reflect what this thing is which you are doing; reflect what kind of sin it is you are committing. If, as your own sorrowing words acknowledge, you have been a false wife—a false wife to the best and truest of husbands, can you dare to act out that falsehood to the last, to die with that guilty secret locked in your heart, from him who has a right to know,—and who alone upon earth has a right to pardon."

"Oh, how cruel you are!" she said, lifting up her streaming eyes to his earnest, inflexible face. "Is it a Christian's part to be so cruel, to break the bruised reed, to crush anything so weak and wretched as I am? Is not repentance enough? I have spent long nights in penitence and tears, long days in dull aching remorse. I would have given all[Pg 263] my future life to atone for one dreadful hour—one unpremeditated yielding to temptation. I have given my life—for my secret has killed me. What more can man or God demand of me? What more can I do to win forgiveness?"

"Only this—tell your husband the truth—however painful, however humiliating the confession. That will be your best atonement. That is the sacrifice which will help to reconcile you with your God. You cannot hope for God's love and pardon hereafter, if you live and die as a hypocrite here. God's saints were some of them steeped in the darkness of guilt before they became the children of light—but there was not one of them who shrank from the confession of his sins."

"You are a man," sobbed Isola. "You do not know what it is for a woman to confess that she is unworthy of her husband's love. You do not know. It is not possible for a man to know the meaning of shame."

"You are wrong there," he said, gently lifting her from the ground, and placing her beside him on the bank. "What chastity is to a woman, honour is to a man. Men have had to stand up before their fellow-men and acknowledge their violation of man's code of honour; knowing that such acknowledgment made them dirt, and very dirt, in the sight of honourable men. You, as a woman, know not how deep men's scorn cuts a man who has sinned against the law which governs gentlemen. A woman thinks there is no such sting as the sting of her shame. Men know better. Yes, I know that it will be most bitter, more bitter than death—for you to tell Colonel Disney that you are not what you have seemed to him; but apart from all considerations of duty, do not his love and devotion deserve the sacrifice of self-love on your part? Can you bear yourself to the last, as a virtuous wife—enjoying his respect—knowing that it is undeserved——"

"I will tell him—at the last," she faltered. "In that parting hour I shall not shrink from telling him all—how I sinned against him—almost unawares—drifting half unconsciously[Pg 264] into a fatal entanglement—and then—and then—against my will—in my weakness and helplessness—alone in the power of the man I loved—betrayed into sin. Oh God! why do you make me remember?" she cried wildly, turning upon the priest in passionate reproachfulness. "For years I have been trying to forget—trying to blank out the past—praying, praying, praying that my humble, tearful love for my husband and my child might cancel those hours of sin. And you come to me, and question me, and on pretence of saving my soul, you force me to look back upon that bygone horror—to live again through that time of madness—the destruction of my life. Cruel, cruel, cruel!"

"Forgive me!" said Father Rodwell, very gently, seeing that she was struggling with hysteria. "I have been too hard, perhaps, too eager to convince you of the right! There are some men, even of my sacred calling, who would judge your case otherwise—who would say the husband is happy in his ignorance; the wife has repented of her sin. Non quieta movere. But it is not in my nature to choose the easy pathways; and it may be that I am too severe a teacher. We will not talk any more about serious things to-day. Only believe that I am your friend—your sincere and devoted friend. If I have spoken hard things, be assured I would have spoken in the same spirit had you been my own sister. Let us say no more yet awhile—and perhaps when you have thought over our interview to-day you will come to see things almost as I see them. I won't press the matter. I will leave your own heart and conscience to plead with you. And now may I walk home with you, before the beauty of the afternoon begins to fade?"

"The vetturino will be waiting for me at the gate," Isola answered, with a dull, dead voice, rising languidly, and adjusting the loosened hair about her forehead with tremulous fingers.

She had thrown off her hat a little while before, and now she took it up, and straightened the loops of ribbon with a nervous touch here and there, and then put the hat on again,[Pg 265] and arranged the gossamer veil, which she hoped might hide her swollen eyelids and tear-stained cheeks.

"If Martin should come to meet me, what will he think? she said piteously.

"Let me go with you, and I may be able to distract his attention—if you don't want him to see that you have been crying."

"No, no. He must not see. He would wonder, and question me—and guess, perhaps—as you did just now. How was it you knew—what made you guess?" she asked, with a sense of rebellion against this man who had pierced the veil behind which she had been hiding herself so long.

"I saw your sorrow; and I knew that there could scarcely be so deep a sorrow if there were no memory of sin. Will you take my arm down this steep path?"

"No, thank you. I know every step. I could walk about this place in my sleep. You have been cruel to me, Father Rodwell, very cruel. Promise me one thing by way of atonement for your cruelty. Promise me that if I die in Rome I shall be buried in this place, and as near Shelley's grave as they can find room to lay me."

"I promise. Yes, it is a sweet spot, is it not? It was down yonder in the old burial-ground that Shelley looked upon the grave of Keats, and said it was a spot to make one in love with death. But I would not have you think yourself doomed to an early death, Mrs. Disney. Have you never read in the 'Lives of the Saints' how some who were on the point of death have revived at the touch of the holy oil, and have lived and have renewed their strength, and re-entered the world to lead a holier and nobler life than they had led before? Who knows if you were to confess your sin, and patiently suffer whatever penance you were called upon to bear, new vistas might not open for you? There is more than one way of being happy in this world. If you could never again know the sweetness of a domestic life—as trusted wife and happy mother—there are other and wider lives in[Pg 266] which you would count your children and your sisters by hundreds. There are sisterhoods in which your future might be full of usefulness and full of peace. Or if you had no vocation for that wider life, it might be that touched by your helplessness in the past, and your remorse in the present, your husband might find it in his heart to forgive that bygone sin, and still to cherish, and still to hold you dear."

"No, no," she cried impatiently. "I would not live for an hour after he knew. I know what he would do. He has told me. He would leave me—at once, and for ever. I should never see his face again. I should be dead to him, by a worse death than the grave; for he would only think of me to shudder at my name. Oh, Father Rodwell, Christianity must be a cruel creed if it can demand such a sacrifice from me. What good can come of his knowing the truth? Only agony to him and shame and despair to me. Can that be good?"

"Truth is life, and falsehood is death," answered the priest, firmly. "You must choose your own course, Mrs. Disney; but there is one argument I may urge as a man of the world rather than as a priest. Nothing is ever hidden for very long in this life. There is no secret so closely kept that some one has not an inkling of it. Better your husband should hear the truth from you, in humble self-accusation, than that he should learn it later—perhaps after he has mourned you for years—from a stranger's lips."

"Oh, that would be horrible—too horrible. But I will confess to him; I will tell him everything—on my deathbed. Yes, when life is ebbing, when the end is close, I will tell him. He shall know what a false and perjured creature I am. I swore to him—swore before God that I was true and faithful—that I loved him and no other. And it was true, absolute truth, when I took that oath. My sin was a thing of the past. I had loved another, and I had let my love lead me into sin. And then my husband asked me if[Pg 267] I had been true and pure always; always. 'Is that true, Isola? I call upon God to hear your answer,' he said. And I answered yes, it was true. I lied before God rather than lose my husband's love; and God heard me, and the blight of His anger has been upon me ever since, withering and consuming me."

They went down the steep pathway, Father Rodwell first, Isola following, between the crowded graves, the azaleas and camelias, veronica and guelder rose, lilac and magnolia, and on either hand a wilderness of roses, red and white.

The shadows of the cypresses closed over them in that deep alley, and the twilight gloom might seem symbolic of the passage through death to life; for beyond the gates, and through a gap in the cypress screen, the level landscape and the city domes and bell-towers were shining in the yellow light of afternoon.


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