"No, I don't sacrifice you — I couldn't sacrifice you," she said, as soon as she could speak again; "but I can't believe in a good for you, that I feel, that we both feel, is a wrong toward others. We can't choose happiness either for ourselves or for another; we can't tell where that will lie. We can only choose whether we will indulge ourselves in the present moment, or whether we will renounce that, for the sake of obeying the divine voice within us, — for the sake of being true to all the motives that sanctify our lives. I know this belief is hard; it has slipped away from me again and again; but I have felt that if I let it go forever, I should have no light through the darkness of this life."
"But, Maggie," said Stephen, seating himself by her again, "is it possible you don't see that what happened yesterday has altered the whole position of things? What infatuation is it, what obstinate prepossession, that blinds you to that? It is too late to say what we might have done or what we ought to have done. Admitting the very worst view of what has been done, it is a fact we must act on now; our position is altered; the right course is no longer what it was before. We must accept our own actions and start afresh from them. Suppose we had been married yesterday? It is nearly the same thing. The effect on others would not have been different. It would only have made this difference to ourselves," Stephen added bitterly, "that you might have acknowledged then that your tie to me was stronger than to others."
Again a deep flush came over Maggie's face, and she was silent. Stephen thought again that he was beginning to prevail, — he had never yet believed that he should not prevail; there are possibilities which our minds shrink from too completely for us to fear them.
"Dearest," he said, in his deepest, tenderest tone, leaning toward her, and putting his arm round her, "you are mine now, — the world believes it; duty must spring out of that now.
"In a few hours you will be legally mine, and those who had claims on us will submit, — they will see that there was a force which declared against their claims."
Maggie's eyes opened wide in one terrified look at the face that was close to hers, and she started up, pale again.
"Oh, I can't do it," she said, in a voice almost of agony; "Stephen, don't ask me — don't urge me. I can't argue any longer, — I don't know what is wise; but my heart will not let me do it. I see, — I feel their trouble now; it is as if it were branded on my mind. I have suffered, and had no one to pity me; and now I have made others suffer. It would never leave me; it would embitter your love to me. I do care for Philip — in a different way; I remember all we said to each other; I know how he thought of me as the one promise of his life. He was given to me that I might make his lot less hard; and I have forsaken him. And Lucy — she has been deceived; she who trusted me more than any one. I cannot marry you; I cannot take a good for myself that has been wrung out of their misery. It is not the force that ought to rule us, — this that we feel for each other; it would rend me away from all that my past life has made dear and holy to me. I can't set out on a fresh life, and forget that; I must go back to it, and cling to it, else I shall feel as if there were nothing firm beneath my feet."
"Good God, Maggie!" said Stephen, rising too and grasping her arm, "you rave. How can you go back without marrying me? You don't know what will be said, dearest. You see nothing as it really is."
"Yes, I do. But they will believe me. I will confess everything. Lucy will believe me — she will forgive you, and — and — oh, some good will come by clinging to the right. Dear, dear Stephen, let me go! — don't drag me into deeper remorse. My whole soul has never consented; it does not consent now."
Stephen let go her arm, and sank back on his chair, half-stunned by despairing rage. He was silent a few moments, not looking at her; while her eyes were turned toward him yearningly, in alarm at this sudden change. At last he said, still without looking at her, —
"Go, then, — leave me; don't torture me any longer, — I can't bear it."
Involuntarily she leaned toward him and put out her hand to touch his. But he shrank from it as if it had been burning iron, and said again, —
Maggie was not conscious of a decision as she turned away from that gloomy averted face, and walked out of the room; it was like an automatic action that fulfils a forgotten intention. What came after? A sense of stairs descended as if in a dream, of flagstones, of a chaise and horses standing, then a street, and a turning into another street where a stage-coach was standing, taking in passengers, and the darting thought that that coach would take her away, perhaps toward home. But she could ask nothing yet; she only got into the coach.
Home — where her mother and brother were, Philip, Lucy, the scene of her very cares and trials — was the haven toward which her mind tended; the sanctuary where sacred relics lay, where she would be rescued from more falling. The thought of Stephen was like a horrible throbbing pain, which yet, as such pains do, seemed to urge all other thoughts into activity. But among her thoughts, what others would say and think of her conduct was hardly present. Love and deep pity and remorseful anguish left no room for that.
The coach was taking her to York, farther away from home; but she did not learn that until she was set down in the old city at midnight. It was no matter; she could sleep there, and start home the next day. She had her purse in her pocket, with all her money in it, — a bank-note and a sovereign; she had kept it in her pocket from forgetfulness, after going out to make purchases the day before yesterday.
Did she lie down in the gloomy bedroom of the old inn that night with her will bent unwaveringly on the path of penitent sacrifice? The great struggles of life are not so easy as that; the great problems of life are not so clear. In the darkness of that night she saw Stephen's face turned toward her in passionate, reproachful misery; she lived through again all the tremulous delights of his presence with her that made existence an easy floating in a stream of joy, instead of a quiet resolved endurance and effort. The love she had renounced came back upon her with a cruel charm; she felt herself opening her arms to receive it once more; and then it seemed to slip away and fade and vanish, leaving only the dying sound of a deep, thrilling voice that said, "Gone, forever gone."