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   Chapter 20 THE INEVITABLE HOUR

The Redemption of David Corson By Charles Frederic Goss Characters: 18056

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"How shall I lose the sin yet keep the sense,

And love th' offender, yet detest the offense?"

-Pope.

After wandering aimlessly about the city for awhile the half-crazed gambler turned his footsteps toward home. He longed for and yet dreaded its quiet and repose. The forces of attraction and repulsion were so nearly balanced that for a long time he oscillated before his own door like a piece of iron hung between the opposite poles of a battery.

At last he entered, both hoping and fearing that Pepeeta would be asleep. He had a vague presentiment that he was on the verge of some great event. The guilty secret so long hidden in the depths of his soul seemed to have festered its way dangerously near to the surface, and he felt that if anything more should happen to irritate him he might do something desperate.

So quiet had been his movements that he stood at Pepeeta's door before she knew that he had entered the house, and when he saw her kneeling by her bedside he stamped his foot in rage. The worshiper, startled by the interruption, although she was momentarily expecting it, hastily arose.

As she turned toward him, he saw that there was a light on her pale countenance which reflected the peace of God to whom she had been praying, as worshipers always and inevitably reflect, however feebly, the character of what they worship. Her beauty, her humility, her holiness goaded him to madness. He hated her, and yet he loved her. He could either have killed her or died for her.

She smiled him a welcome which revealed her love, but did not conceal her sadness nor her suffering, and, approaching him, extended her hands for an embrace. He pushed her aside and flung himself heavily into a chair.

"You are tired," she said soothingly, and stroked his hair.

He did not answer, and her caress both tranquilized and frenzied him.

She placed before him the little lunch which she always prepared with her own hands and kept in readiness for his return.

"Take it away," he said.

She obeyed, and returning seated herself upon an ottoman at his feet.

The silence was one which it seemed impossible to break, but which at last became unendurable.

"How often have I told you never to let me find you on your knees when I come home?" he at last asked, brutally.

"Oh! my beloved," she exclaimed, "you will at least permit me to kneel to you! See! I am here in an attitude of supplication! Listen to me! Answer me! What is the matter? Do you not love me any more? Tell me!"

He drew away his hands which she had clasped, and folded them across his breast.

"What has come between us?" she continued. "Tell me why it is that instead of growing together, we are continually drawing apart? Sometimes I feel that we are drifting eternally away from each other. I can no longer get near to you. An ocean seems to roll between us! What does it mean? Is this the nature of love? Does it only last for a little time? Do you not love me any more? Will you never love me again?"

He still gazed sullenly at the floor.

"Will you not answer me?" she begged imploringly. "I cannot endure it any longer. My heart will break. I am a woman, you must remember that! I need love and sympathy so much. It is my daily bread. What is the matter? I beseech you to tell me! Is it your business? Do you feel, as I do, that it is wrong? I have sometimes thought so, and that you were worried by it and would be glad to give it up but for the fear that it might deprive me of some of these luxuries. Is it that? Oh! you do not know me. You do not know how happy I should be to leave these things forever, and to go out into the street this very night a pauper. It is wrong, David. I see it now. I feel it in the depths of my heart."

"Wrong, is it," he cried savagely, "and whose fault is it that I am in this wrong business?"

"It is mine," she said, "mine! I own it. It was I who led you astray. How often and how bitterly have I regretted it! How strange it is, that love like mine could ever have done you harm. I do not understand this. I cannot see how love can do harm. I have loved you so truly and so deeply, and I would give my life for you, and yet this love of mine has been the cause of all your trouble! It would seem that love ought to bless us. Would you not think so?"

He sat silent; any one but Pepeeta could have seen that this silence would soon be broken by an explosion.

"Speak to me, my love!" she pleaded, "speak to me. I confess that I have wronged you. But is there not something that I can do to make you happy? Surely a wrong like this cannot be irreparable. Tell me something that I can do to make you happy!"

With a violent and convulsive effort, he pushed her away and exclaimed fiercely, "Leave me! Do not touch me! I hate you!"

"Hate me?" she cried, "hate me? Oh! David. You cannot mean it. You cannot mean that you hate me?"

"But I do!" he exclaimed bitterly. "I hate you. You have ruined me, and now you confess it. From the time that I first saw you I have never had a moment's peace. Why did you ever cross my path? Could you not have left me alone in my happiness and innocence? Look at me now. See what you have brought me to. I am ruined! But I am not alone. You have pulled yourself down with me. What will you say when I tell you that you are involved in a crime that must drag us both to hell?"

"A crime?" she cried, clasping her hands in terror.

"Yes, a crime. You need not look so innocent. You are as guilty as I, or at least you are as deeply involved. We are bound together in misery. We are doomed."

"Doomed! Doomed! What do you mean? Tell me, I implore you-- do not speak in riddles!"

"Tell you? Do you wish to know? Are you in earnest? Then I will! You are not my wife! There! It is out at last!"

Pepeeta sprang to her feet and stood staring at him in horror.

"Not your wife?" she gasped.

"No, not my wife," he said, repeating the bitter truth. "I deceived you. You were married to your beast of a husband lawfully enough; but as you would not leave him willingly, I determined that you should leave him any way. And so I bribed the justice to deceive you."

"You-bribed-the-justice-to-deceive-me?"

"Yes, bribed him. Do you understand? You see now what your cursed beauty has brought you to?"

She stood before him white and silent.

He had risen, and they were confronting each other with their sins and their sorrows between them.

It was as if a flash of lightning had in an instant lit up the darkness of her whole existence, and she saw in one swift glance not only her misery, but her sin. He was cruel; but he was right. She had been ignorant; but she had not been altogether innocent. There was a period in this tragedy when she had gone against the vague but powerful protest of her soul. With a swift and true perception she traced her present sorrow to that moment in the twilight when, against that protest, she besought David to accompany them on their travels. She felt, but did not observe nor heed that admonition. She had even forgotten it, but now it rose vividly before her memory.

These moments of revision, when the logic of events throws into clear light the vaguely perceived motives of the soul, are always dramatic and often terrible.

It was Pepeeta who broke the silence following David's outburst. In a voice preternaturally calm, she said, "We are in the presence of God, and I demand of you the truth. Is what you have told me true?"

"As true as life. As true as death. As true as hell," he answered bitterly.

"This, then," she said, "is the clue to all this mystery. The tangled thread has begun to unravel. Many times this suspicion has forced itself upon my mind; but it was too terrible to believe! And yet I, who could not endure the suspicion, must now support the reality."

They had not taken their eyes from each other and were trying to penetrate each other's minds, but realized that it was impossible. There was in each something that the other could not comprehend.

The strain on his overwrought nerves soon became unendurable to David, and he sank into a chair.

"Well," he said, as he did so, "what are you going to do about it?"

She had not at first realized that the emergency called for action, but this inquiry awakened her to the consciousness that she was in a situation from which she must escape by an effort of her will. She was before a horrible dilemma and upon one horn or the other she must be cruelly impaled.

But David, who asked the question, had not realized this necessity at all.

"Do?" she said, "do? Must I do something? Yes, you are right. We cannot go on as we are. Something must be done. But what? Is it possible that I must return to my husband? How can I do that-I who cannot think of him without loathing! What is the matter? Why do you tremble so? Is it then as terrible to you as to me? I see from your emotion that I am right. And yet I cannot see what good it will do! How can it undo the wrong?

It will be a certain sort of reparation, but it cannot bring him happiness, for I cannot give him back my heart. To whom will it bring happiness? Has happiness become impossible? Are we all three doomed to eternal misery? Oh! David, why have you done this?"

He did not reply, but sat cowering in his chair.

"Forgive me," she cried, when she noticed his despair, "I did not mean to reproach you, but I am so bewildered! And yet I see my duty! If he is my husband, I must go back to him. A wife's place is by her husband's side. I do not see how I can do it, but I must. How hard it is! I cannot realize it. The very thought of seeing him again makes me shudder! And yet I must go!"

"It is impossible," gasped the trembling creature to whom she looked for confirmation.

"Why impossible?"

"Because, because-he-is-dead," he whispered, through his dry lips.

"Dead? Did you say dead?" Pepeeta cried. "When did he die? How did he die?"

"I killed him," he shouted, springing to his feet and waving his hands wildly. "There! It has told itself. I knew it would. It has been eating its way out of my heart for months. I should have died if I had kept it secret for another moment. I feel relieved already. You do not know what it means to guard a secret night and day for years, do you? Oh, how sweet it is to tell it at last. I killed him! I killed him! I struck him with a stone. I crushed his skull and turned him face downward in the road and left him there so that when they found him they would think that he had fallen from his horse. It was well done, for one who had had no training in crime! No one has suspected it. I am in no danger. And yet I could not keep the secret any longer. Explain that, will you? If my tongue had been torn out by the roots, my eyes would have looked it, and if my eyes had been seared with a red-hot iron, my hands would have written it. A crime can find a thousand tongues! And now that I have told it, I feel so much happier. You would not believe it, Pepeeta. I am like myself again. I feel as if I should never be unkind or irritable any more. The load has fallen from my heart. Come, now, and kiss me. Let me take you in my arms."

Extending his hands, he approached her. As he did so, the look of horror with which she had regarded him intensified and she retreated before him until she reached the wall, looking like a sea-bird hurled against a precipice by a storm. Such dread was on her face that he dared not touch her.

"What is the matter?" he said. "Are you afraid of me?"

She did not reply, but gazed at him as if he were some monster suddenly risen from the deep. He endured the glance for a single moment, and then, realizing the crime which he had committed had excited an uncontrollable repulsion for him in her soul, he staggered backward and sank once more into his chair, the picture of helpless and hopeless despair.

For a long time Pepeeta gazed at him without moving or speaking. And then, as she beheld his misery, the look of horror slowly melted into one of pity, until she seemed like an angel who from some vast distance surveys a sinful man. Gradually she began to realize that he who had committed this dreadful deed was her own lover, and that it was the result of that guilty affection which they bore each other. The consciousness of her own complicity softened her. She moved towards him; she spoke.

"Forgive me," she said, "for seeming even for a moment to despise and abhor you. It was all so sudden. I do not mean to condemn you. I do not mean to act or feel as if I were any less guilty than you are in all this wrong. But when one has to face something awful without preparation, it is very hard. No wonder that we do not know what to do. Who but God can extricate us from this trouble? We are both guilty, David. I think that it is because I have had so large a share in all the rest that has been wrong that I cannot now feel towards you as I think I ought. It is true that you have injured me terribly and irretrievably. It is true that your hands are stained with blood, and yet I love you! My heart yearns for you this moment as never before since we have known each other. I long to take you in my arms."

He interrupted her by springing from his chair and attempting to embrace her; but she waved him back with a strange majesty in her mien, and continued. "I long to take you to my heart and comfort you. I could live with you or I could die with you. But there is a voice within my soul that tells me that we must part. Lives cannot be bound together by crime. While misfortunes and mistakes may knit the hearts of lovers together, evil deeds must force them apart! We are not lawfully married, and so-"

"But we can be!" he exclaimed.

"No," she answered, in a voice that sounded to him like that of destiny. "No, we cannot. No one would marry us if the facts were known. And if we concealed them from others, we could not hide them from ourselves! We have no right to each other. We could not respect and therefore we could not truly love each other. Into every moment of our lives this guilty secret would intrude. No, it is impossible. I see it clearly. Every passing moment only makes it more plain. It is terrible, but it is necessary, and what must be, must!"

"We shall not part!" he cried, springing towards her and seizing her by the wrist. "God has bound us together and no man shall put us asunder! We are as firmly linked by vice as by virtue. This secret will draw us together! We cannot keep away from each other. I should find you if you were in heaven and I in hell. You are mine! mine, I say! Nothing shall part us. Have I not suffered for you and sinned for you? What better title is there than that? It was not the sin, but the secret which has alienated us, and now that I am not compelled to guard it any longer, there can be no more trouble between us. The deed has passed unsuspected. We should have heard of it long ago if any one had ever doubted that it was an accident. Let the dead past bury its dead! Let us be happy."

He looked down upon her as if his will were irresistible; but she remained unmoved and immovable, and gazed at him with deep, sad eyes in which he saw his doom.

"No," she answered, calmly, "it is impossible. You need not argue. You cannot change my mind. I see it all too clearly. We must part."

"Oh! pity me," he cried, falling on his knees. "What shall I do? I cannot bear this burden alone. It will crush me. Have mercy, Pepeeta. Do not drive me away. I cannot endure to go forth with this brand of Cain upon my forehead and realize that I shall never hear from your lips another word of love or comfort. Pity me. You are not God. He has not put justice into your hands for execution. You are only human!"

"Alas," she cried, "and all too human. But, my beloved, I am not acting for myself. It is not my mind or heart that speaks. It is God speaking through me. I feel myself to be acting under an influence apart from myself. We have resisted these voices and this influence too long. Now we must obey them."

"But, Pepeeta," he continued, "you do not really think that you have the power to suppress the love you feel for me?"

"I shall not try," she answered.

"But can you not see that this passion of ours will bring us together again? Sooner or later, love will conquer. It conquers or crushes. Everything gives way to it at last. It disrupts the most solemn contracts. It burns the strongest bonds like tow. Always and everywhere, men and women who love will come together. It is the law of life, it is destiny. We cannot remain apart, we are linked together for time and eternity."

She listened to him calmly until he had finished and then said, "Nevertheless, I must go. And I will go now; delay is useless. I see only too clearly that as long as I am near, you must steadily get worse instead of better. While you possess the fruits of your sin you will not truly repent. You must either surrender them or be deprived of them. We can never become accustomed to this awful secret. Our lives are doomed to loneliness and sorrow; we must accept our destiny; we must go forth alone to seek the forgiveness of God. Good-bye; but remember, David, in every hour of trial, wherever you may be, there will be a never-ceasing prayer ascending to God for you. My life shall be devoted to supplication. I shall never lose hope; I shall never doubt. Love like that I bear you must in some way be redemptive in its nature. All will be well. Once more, good-bye."

She smiled on him with unutterable tenderness, and with her eyes still fixed upon his haggard face began to move slowly toward the door.

He did not stir; he could not move, but remained upon his knees with his hands extended towards her in supplication.

Like some exalted figure in a dream he saw her vanish from his sight; the world became empty and dark; his powers of endurance had been overtaxed; he lost all consciousness, and fell forward on the floor.

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