'Don't say so, Dora! Dearest love, don't think so!'
'I won't, if I can help it, Doady. But I am very happy; though my dear boy is so lonely by himself, before his child-wife's empty chair!'
It is night; and I am with her still. Agnes has arrived; has been among us for a whole day and an evening. She, my aunt, and I, have sat with Dora since the morning, all together. We have not talked much, but Dora has been perfectly contented and cheerful. We are now alone.
Do I know, now, that my child-wife will soon leave me? They have told me so; they have told me nothing new to my thoughts — but I am far from sure that I have taken that truth to heart. I cannot master it. I have withdrawn by myself, many times today, to weep. I have remembered Who wept for a parting between the living and the dead. I have bethought me of all that gracious and compassionate history. I have tried to resign myself, and to console myself; and that, I hope, I may have done imperfectly; but what I cannot firmly settle in my mind is, that the end will absolutely come. I hold her hand in mine, I hold her heart in mine, I see her love for me, alive in all its strength. I cannot shut out a pale lingering shadow of belief that she will be spared.
'I am going to speak to you, Doady. I am going to say something I have often thought of saying, lately. You won't mind?' with a gentle look.
'Mind, my darling?'
'Because I don't know what you will think, or what you may have thought sometimes. Perhaps you have often thought the same. Doady, dear, I am afraid I was too young.'
I lay my face upon the pillow by her, and she looks into my eyes, and speaks very softly. Gradually, as she goes on, I feel, with a stricken heart, that she is speaking of herself as past.
'I am afraid, dear, I was too young. I don't mean in years only, but in experience, and thoughts, and everything. I was such a silly little creature! I am afraid it would have been better, if we had only loved each other as a boy and girl, and forgotten it. I have begun to think I was not fit to be a wife.'
I try to stay my tears, and to reply, 'Oh, Dora, love, as fit as I to be a husband!'
'I don't know,' with the old shake of her curls. 'Perhaps! But if I had been more fit to be married I might have made you more so, too. Besides, you are very clever, and I never was.'
'We have been very happy, my sweet Dora.'
'I was very happy, very. But, as years went on, my dear boy would have wearied of his child-wife. She would have been less and less a companion for him. He would have been more and more sensible of what was wanting in his home. She wouldn't have improved. It is better as it is.'
'Oh, Dora, dearest, dearest, do not speak to me so. Every word seems a reproach!'
'No, not a syllable!' she answers, kissing me. 'Oh, my dear, you never deserved it, and I loved you far too well to say a reproachful word to you, in earnest — it was all the merit I had, except being pretty — or you thought me so. Is it lonely, down-stairs, Doady?'
'Don't cry! Is my chair there?'
'In its old place.'
'Oh, how my poor boy cries! Hush, hush! Now, make me one promise. I want to speak to Agnes. When you go downstairs, tell Agnes so, and send her up to me; and while I speak to her, let no one come — not even aunt. I want to speak to Agnes by herself. I want to speak to Agnes, quite alone.'
I promise that she shall, immediately; but I cannot leave her, for my grief.
'I said that it was better as it is!' she whispers, as she holds me in her arms. 'Oh, Doady, after more years, you never could have loved your child-wife better than you do; and, after more years, she would so have tried and disappointed you, that you might not have been able to love her half so well! I know I was too young and foolish. It is much better as it is!'
Agnes is downstairs, when I go into the parlour; and I give her the message. She disappears, leaving me alone with Jip.
His Chinese house is by the fire; and he lies within it, on his bed of flannel, querulously trying to sleep. The bright moon is high and clear. As I look out on the night, my tears fall fast, and my undisciplined heart is chastened heavily — heavily.
I sit down by the fire, thinking with a blind remorse of all those secret feelings I have nourished since my marriage. I think of every little trifle between me and Dora, and feel the truth, that trifles make the sum of life. Ever rising from the sea of my remembrance, is the image of the dear child as I knew her first, graced by my young love, and by her own, with every fascination wherein such love is rich. Would it, indeed, have been better if we had loved each other as a boy and a girl, and forgotten it? Undisciplined heart, reply!
How the time wears, I know not; until I am recalled by my child-wife's old companion. More restless than he was, he crawls out of his house, and looks at me, and wanders to the door, and whines to go upstairs.
'Not tonight, Jip! Not tonight!'
He comes very slowly back to me, licks my hand, and lifts his dim eyes to my face.
'Oh, Jip! It may be, never again!'
He lies down at my feet, stretches himself out as if to sleep, and with a plaintive cry, is dead.
'Oh, Agnes! Look, look, here!' — That face, so full of pity, and of grief, that rain of tears, that awful mute appeal to me, that solemn hand upraised towards Heaven!
It is over. Darkness comes before my eyes; and, for a time, all things are blotted out of my remembrance.