Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate: Ch. 16

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Chapter XVI


The Curate of St Roque's found his brother in his library, looking very much as he always looked at first glance. But Gerald was not reading nor writing nor doing anything. He was seated in his usual chair, by his usual table, with all the ordinary things around. Some manuscript—lying loosely about, and looking as if he had thrown down his pen in disgust, and pushed it away from him in the middle of a sentence—was on the table, and an open book in his other hand; but neither the book nor the manuscript occupied him; he was sitting leaning his head in his hands, gazing blankly out through the window, as it appeared, at the cedar, which flung its serene shadow over the lawn outside. He jumped up at the sound of his brother's voice, but seemed to recall himself with a little difficulty even for that, and did not look much surprised to see him. In short, Frank read in Gerald's eyes that he would not at that moment have been surprised to see any one, and that, in his own consciousness, the emergency was great enough to justify any unlooked-for appearance, though it might be from heaven or from the grave.

"I am glad you have come," he said, after they had greeted each other, his mouth relaxing ever so slightly into the ghost of his old smile; "you and I always understood each other, and it appears I want interpretation now. And one interpretation supposes many," he said with a gleam, half of pathos half of amusement, lighting up his face for a moment; "there is no such thing as accepting a simple version even of one man's thoughts. You have come at a very fit time, Frank—that is, for me."

"I am glad you think so," said the other brother; and then there was a pause, neither liking to enter upon the grand subject which stood between them.

"Have you seen Louisa?" said Gerald. He spoke like a man who was ill, in a preoccupied interrupted way. Like a sick man, he was occupied with himself, with the train of thought which was always going on in his mind whatever he might be doing, whether he was working or resting, alone or in company. For months back he had carried it with him everywhere. The cedar-tree outside, upon which his thoughtful eyes fell as he looked straight before him out of the library window, was all garlanded with the reasonings and questionings of this painful spring. To Frank's eyes, Gerald's attention was fixed upon the fluttering of a certain twig at the extremity of one of those broad solemn immovable branches. Gerald, however, saw not the twig, but one of his hardest difficulties which was twined and twined in the most inextricable way round that little sombre cluster of spikes; and so kept looking out, not at the cedar, but at the whole confused yet distinct array of his own troubled thoughts.

"If you have seen Louisa, she has been talking to you, no doubt," he said, after another little pause, with again the glimmer of a smile. "We have fallen upon troubles, and we don't understand each other, Frank. That's all very natural; she does not see things from my point of view: I could not expect she should. If I could see from hers, it might be easier for us all; but that is still less to be expected; and it is hard upon her, Frank—very hard," said Gerald, turning round in his old ingenuous way, with that faculty for seeing other people's difficulties which was so strong a point in his character. "She is called upon to make, after all, perhaps, the greater sacrifice of the two; and she does not see any duty in it—the reverse, indeed. She thinks it a sin. It is a strange view of life, to look at it from Louisa's point. Here will be an unwilling, unintentional martyrdom; and it is hard to think I should take all the merit, and leave my poor little wife the suffering without any compensation!" He began to walk up and down the room with uneasy steps, as if the thought was painful, and had to be got rid of by some sudden movement. "It must be that God reckons with women for what they have endured, as with men for what they have done," said Gerald. He spoke with a kind of grieved certainty, which made his brother feel, to start with, the hopelessness of all argument.

"But must this be? Is it necessary to take such a final, such a terrible step?" said the Perpetual Curate.

"I think so." Gerald went to the window, to resume his contemplation of the cedar, and stood there with his back turned to Frank, and his eyes going slowly over all the long processes of his self-argument, laid up as they were upon those solemn levels of shadow. "Yes—you have gone so far with me; but I don't want to take you any farther, Frank. Perhaps, when I have reached the perfect peace to which I am looking forward, I may try to induce you to share it, but at present there are so many pricks of the flesh. You did not come to argue with me, did you?" and again the half-humorous gleam of old came over Gerald's face as he looked round. "Louisa believes in arguing," he said, as he came back to the table and took his seat again; "not that she has ever gained much by it, so far as I am aware. Poor girl! she talks and talks, and fancies she is persuading me; and all the time my heart is bleeding for her. There it is!" he exclaimed, suddenly hiding his face in his hands. "This is what crushes one to think of. The rest is hard enough, Heaven knows—separation from my friends, giving up my own people, wounding and grieving, as I know I shall, everybody who loves me. I could bear that; but Louisa and her children—God help me, there's the sting!"