The Mill on the Floss By George Eliot Book 6: The Great Temptation: Chapter 13 - Borne Along by the Tide

"See, Maggie, how everything has come without our seeking, — in spite of all our efforts. We never thought of being alone together again; it has all been done by others. See how the tide is carrying us out, away from all those unnatural bonds that we have been trying to make faster round us, and trying in vain. It will carry us on to Torby, and we can land there, and get some carriage, and hurry on to York and then to Scotland, — and never pause a moment till we are bound to each other, so that only death can part us. It is the only right thing, dearest; it is the only way of escaping from this wretched entanglement. Everything has concurred to point it out to us. We have contrived nothing, we have thought of nothing ourselves."

Stephen spoke with deep, earnest pleading. Maggie listened, passing from her startled wonderment to the yearning after that belief that the tide was doing it all, that she might glide along with the swift, silent stream, and not struggle any more. But across that stealing influence came the terrible shadow of past thoughts; and the sudden horror lest now, at last, the moment of fatal intoxication was close upon her, called up feelings of angry resistance toward Stephen.

"Let me go!" she said, in an agitated tone, flashing an indignant look at him, and trying to get her hands free. "You have wanted to deprive me of any choice. You knew we were come too far; you have dared to take advantage of my thoughtlessness. It is unmanly to bring me into such a position."

Stung by this reproach, he released her hands, moved back to his former place, and folded his arms, in a sort of desperation at the difficulty Maggie's words had made present to him. If she would not consent to go on, he must curse himself for the embarrassment he had led her into. But the reproach was the unendurable thing; the one thing worse than parting with her was, that she should feel he had acted unworthily toward her. At last he said, in a tone of suppressed rage, —

"I didn't notice that we had passed Luckreth till we had got to the next village; and then it came into my mind that we would go on. I can't justify it; I ought to have told you. It is enough to make you hate me, since you don't love me well enough to make everything else indifferent to you, as I do you. Shall I stop the boat and try to get you out here? I'll tell Lucy that I was mad, and that you hate me; and you shall be clear of me forever. No one can blame you, because I have behaved unpardonably to you."

Maggie was paralyzed; it was easier to resist Stephen's pleading than this picture he had called up of himself suffering while she was vindicated; easier even to turn away from his look of tenderness than from this look of angry misery, that seemed to place her in selfish isolation from him. He had called up a state of feeling in which the reasons which had acted on her conscience seemed to be transmitted into mere self-regard. The indignant fire in her eyes was quenched, and she began to look at him with timid distress. She had reproached him for being hurried into irrevocable trespass, — she, who had been so weak herself.

"As if I shouldn't feel what happened to you — just the same," she said, with reproach of another kind, — the reproach of love, asking for more trust. This yielding to the idea of Stephen's suffering was more fatal than the other yielding, because it was less distinguishable from that sense of others' claims which was the moral basis of her resistance.

He felt all the relenting in her look and tone; it was heaven opening again. He moved to her side, and took her hand, leaning his elbow on the back of the boat, and saying nothing. He dreaded to utter another word, he dreaded to make another movement, that might provoke another reproach or denial from her. Life hung on her consent; everything else was hopeless, confused, sickening misery. They glided along in this way, both resting in that silence as in a haven, both dreading lest their feelings should be divided again, — till they became aware that the clouds had gathered, and that the slightest perceptible freshening of the breeze was growing and growing, so that the whole character of the day was altered.

"You will be chill, Maggie, in this thin dress. Let me raise the cloak over your shoulders. Get up an instant, dearest."

Maggie obeyed; there was an unspeakable charm in being told what to do, and having everything decided for her. She sat down again covered with the cloak, and Stephen took to his oars again, making haste; for they must try to get to Torby as fast as they could. Maggie was hardly conscious of having said or done anything decisive. All yielding is attended with a less vivid consciousness than resistance; it is the partial sleep of thought; it is the submergence of our own personality by another. Every influence tended to lull her into acquiescence. That dreamy gliding in the boat which had lasted for four hours, and had brought some weariness and exhaustion; the recoil of her fatigued sensations from the impracticable difficulty of getting out of the boat at this unknown distance from home, and walking for long miles, — all helped to bring her into more complete subjection to that strong, mysterious charm which made a last parting from Stephen seem the death of all joy, and made the thought of wounding him like the first touch of the torturing iron before which resolution shrank. And then there was the present happiness of being with him, which was enough to absorb all her languid energy.

Presently Stephen observed a vessel coming after them. Several vessels, among them the steamer to Mudport, had passed them with the early tide, but for the last hour they had seen none. He looked more and more eagerly at this vessel, as if a new thought had come into his mind along with it, and then he looked at Maggie hesitatingly.

"Maggie, dearest," he said at last, "if this vessel should be going to Mudport, or to any convenient place on the coast northward, it would be our best plan to get them to take us on board. You are fatigued, and it may soon rain; it may be a wretched business, getting to Torby in this boat. It's only a trading vessel, but I dare say you can be made tolerably comfortable. We'll take the cushions out of the boat. It is really our best plan. They'll be glad enough to take us. I've got plenty of money about me. I can pay them well."

Maggie's heart began to beat with reawakened alarm at this new proposition; but she was silent, — one course seemed as difficult as another.

Stephen hailed the vessel. It was a Dutch vessel going to Mudport, the English mate informed him, and, if this wind held, would be there in less than two days.

"We had got out too far with our boat," said Stephen. "I was trying to make for Torby. But I'm afraid of the weather; and this lady — my wife — will be exhausted with fatigue and hunger. Take us on board — will you? — and haul up the boat. I'll pay you well."

Maggie, now really faint and trembling with fear, was t aken on board, making an interesting object of contemplation to admiring Dutchmen. The mate feared the lady would have a poor time of it on board, for they had no accommodation for such entirely unlooked-for passengers, — no private cabin larger than an old-fashioned church-pew. But at least they had Dutch cleanliness, which makes all other inconveniences tolerable; and the boat cushions were spread into a couch for Maggie on the poop with all alacrity. But to pace up and down the deck leaning on Stephen — being upheld by his strength — was the first change that she needed; then came food, and then quiet reclining on the cushions, with the sense that no new resolution could be taken that day. Everything must wait till to-morrow. Stephen sat beside her with her hand in his; they could only speak to each other in low tones; only look at each other now and then, for it would take a long while to dull the curiosity of the five men on board, and reduce these handsome young strangers to that minor degree of interest which belongs, in a sailor's regard, to all objects nearer than the horizon. But Stephen was triumphantly happy. Every other thought or care was thrown into unmarked perspective by the certainty that Maggie must be his. The leap had been taken now; he had been tortured by scruples, he had fought fiercely with overmastering inclination, he had hesitated; but repentance was impossible. He murmured forth in fragmentary sentences his happiness, his adoration, his tenderness, his belief that their life together must be heaven, that her presence with him would give rapture to every common day; that to satisfy her lightest wish was dearer to him than all other bliss; that everything was easy for her sake, except to part with her; and now they never would part; he would belong to her forever, and all that was his was hers, — had no value for him except as it was hers. Such things, uttered in low, broken tones by the one voice that has first stirred the fibre of young passion, have only a feeble effect — on experienced minds at a distance from them. To poor Maggie they were very near; they were like nectar held close to thirsty lips; there was, there must be, then, a life for mortals here below which was not hard and chill, — in which affection would no longer be self-sacrifice. Stephen's passionate words made the vision of such a life more fully present to her than it had ever been before; and the vision for the time excluded all realities, — all except the returning sun-gleams which broke out on the waters as the evening approached, and mingled with the visionary sunlight of promised happiness; all except the hand that pressed hers, and the voice that spoke to her, and the eyes that looked at her with grave, unspeakable love.

There was to be no rain, after all; the clouds rolled off to the horizon again, making the great purple rampart and long purple isles of that wondrous land which reveals itself to us when the sun goes down, — the land that the evening star watches over. Maggie was to sleep all night on the poop; it was better than going below; and she was covered with the warmest wrappings the ship could furnish. It was still early, when the fatigues of the day brought on a drowsy longing for perfect rest, and she laid down her head, looking at the faint, dying flush in the west, where the one golden lamp was getting brighter and brighter. Then she looked up at Stephen, who was still seated by her, hanging over her as he leaned his arm against the vessel's side. Behind all the delicious visions of these last hours, which had flowed over her like a soft stream, and made her entirely passive, there was the dim consciousness that the condition was a transient one, and that the morrow must bring back the old life of struggle; that there were thoughts which would presently avenge themselves for this oblivion. But now nothing was distinct to her; she was being lulled to sleep with that soft stream still flowing over her, with those delicious visions melting and fading like the wondrous aerial land of the west.

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