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    Chapter 15

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    Chapter 15
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    AN UNTIMELY REMINISCENCE.

    In spite of nursing and a very strong constitution, Bressant's recovery
    was slow. The fact was, his mind was restless and disturbed, and
    produced a fever in his blood. Large and powerful as he was, his
    physical was largely dependent on his mental well-being, as must always
    be the case with persons well organized throughout. He would never have
    been so muscular and healthy had his life not been an undisturbed and
    self-complacent one. These questions of the heart and emotions were not
    salutary to his body, however beneficial otherwise.

    At the same time, no one is quite himself who is ill, and doubtless
    Bressant would have escaped many of his difficulties, and solved others
    with comparatively little trouble, if his faculties had not been untuned
    by illness. While he was more open to the influx of all these novel
    ideas and problems, he was less able to deal with and dispose of them.
    So the professor, while encouraged by the observation of his apparent
    progress in the direction of human feeling and emotional warmth, was
    concerned to find him falling off in recuperative power.

    Sophie was largely to blame for it. Bressant was getting to depend too
    much upon her society. He brightened when she came in, and was gloomy
    when she went out. He liked to talk and argue with her; to dash waves
    of logic, impetuous but subtle, against the rock of her pure intuitions
    and steady consistency. He was careful not to go too far; though,
    indeed, she usually had the best of the encounter. Of course his
    knowledge and trained faculties far surpassed Sophie's simple
    acquirements and modest learning; but she had a marvelous penetration in
    seeing a fallacy, even when she knew not how to expose it; and she
    mercilessly pricked many of the conceited bubbles of his understanding.

    Doubtless she would have noticed the too prominent position which she
    had come to occupy in the invalid's horizon, had not her eyes, so clear
    to see every thing else, been blinded by the fact that he, also, was
    grown to be of altogether too much importance to her. She never for a
    moment imagined that any thing but an abstract and ideal scheme for
    benefiting Bressant was actuating her in her intercourse with him. She
    proposed to educate him in pure beliefs and true aspirations; to show
    him that there was more in life than can be mathematically proved. But
    that she could derive other than an immaterial and impersonal enjoyment
    from it--oh, no!

    This was quixotic and unpractical, if nothing worse. What other means of
    imparting spiritual knowledge could a young girl like Sophie have, than
    to exhibit to her pupil the structure and workings of her own soul? But
    this could not be done with impunity; neither was Bressant a cup, to be
    emptied and then refilled with a purer substance. Young men and women
    with exalted and ideal views about each other, cannot do better than to
    keep out of one another's way. Unless they are prepared to mingle a
    great deal of what is earthly with their dreams, they will be apt,
    sooner or later, to have a rude awakening.

    The conceit of her ideal crusade against Bressant's shortcomings blinded
    Sophie to what she could not otherwise have helped seeing--that she
    enjoyed his companionship for its own immediate sake. She had, perhaps,
    more direct and simple strength of character than he; but he made up in
    other ways for the lack of it. Besides, he had not taken measures to
    obstruct the natural keenness of his vision, and therefore saw, with
    comparative clearness, how the land lay; an immense advantage over
    Sophie, of course. But when he came to analyzing and classifying what he
    saw, he found his intelligence at fault. That little episode with
    Cornelia was the only bit of experience he had to fall back upon; and
    that was more of a puzzle than an assistance to him.

    Matters went on thus for about six weeks, at which time Bressant was
    still confined to his room, although decidedly convalescent. It had
    seemed to him for some time past that a crisis would soon be reached in
    his relations with Sophie, but what the upshot of it would be he could
    not conjecture. He only felt that at present something was
    concealed--that there were explanations and confessions to be made,
    which would have the effect of putting his young nurse and himself upon
    more open and intimate terms. He looked forward to this culmination with
    impatience, and yet with anxiety. One morning, when they had been
    reading Spenser's "Faerie Queene," Cornelia's weekly letter was brought
    in, and subsequently the conversation turned upon her.

    "I used to think she was much more beautiful than you," remarked
    Bressant, thoughtfully, twisting and turning the palm-leaf fan he held
    in his hands. "I don't think, now, that I knew what beauty was," he
    added, concentrating his straight eyebrows upon Sophie, in a
    scrutinizing look.

    "No one could be more beautiful than Neelie," said Sophie, with gentle
    emphasis. "What has made you change your opinion?" As she spoke, she
    closed the book on her lap, and leaned her cheek upon her hand. Some of
    the sunshine fell upon her white dress, but left her face in shadow. It
    struck Bressant, however, that the clear morning light which filled the
    room emanated from her eyes rather than from the sunshine.

    "I don't know that I have changed my opinion," said he, looking down
    again at the fan; "I learn new things every day, that's all. Do you ever
    think about yourself?"

    "I suppose I do, sometimes; nobody can help being conscious of
    themselves once in a while."

    "About what you are, compared with other people, I mean."

    "There's nothing peculiar about me; still, I may be different, in some
    ways, from other people," answered Sophie, with simplicity.

    "I can judge better about that than you; there was some use in deafness,
    and being alone, and thinking only of fame, and such things."

    "What use?" asked Sophie, leaning forward, with interest, for he had
    never spoken about his former life before.

    "The same way that a man who never drinks has a more delicate sense of
    taste than a drunkard," returned Bressant, apparently pleased with his
    simile. "I've seen so little of women, that I can taste you more
    correctly than if I had seen a great many. Understand?"

    Sophie did not answer, being somewhat thrown out by this new way of
    looking at the matter. There seemed to be some reason in it, too.

    "If I'd associated with other people, I shouldn't have been sensitive
    enough to recognize you when we met; no one except me can know you or
    feel you," continued he, following out his idea.

    Sophie began to feel a vague misgiving. What did this mean? What was
    going to be the end of it? Ought she to allow it to go on? And yet--most
    likely it meant nothing; it was only one of his queer fancies that he
    was elaborating. There did not seem to be any thing suspicious in his
    manner.

    "It wasn't easy even for me," he resumed, throwing another glance at
    her; she sat with her eyes cast down, so that he could observe her with
    impunity. "It would have been impossible unless you had helped me to it.
    You have taught me yourself, even more than I have studied you."

    Sophie started, and a look of terror, bewilderment, and passionate
    repudiation, lightened in her eyes. How dared he--how could he, say
    that? how so falsely misrepresent her actions, and misinterpret her
    purposes? Her mind went staggering back over the past, seeking for means
    of self-justification and defense. She had only meant to benefit him--to
    amplify and soften his character--to inspire him with more ideal views
    and aims; and to do this she had--what? Sophie paused, and shuddered.
    Could it, after all, be true? Had she, forgetful of maidenly modesty and
    reserve, opened to this man's eyes her secret soul? invited him into the
    privacy of her heart, to criticise and handle it?--invited him!--brought
    forward, and pressed upon his notice, the thoughts and impulses which
    she should scarcely have whispered even to herself? Had she done this?

    "You have taught me that there is no one like you in the world," said
    Bressant. His voice sounded strangely to her, coming across such an
    abyss of shame, remorse, and dismay. Did he know the bitter satire his
    words conveyed? Sophie's face was hidden in her hands. She dared not
    think what might come next.

    "Is it nothing to you to know that you are more to me than any thing
    else?" demanded he, and his tone was becoming husky and unsteady. The
    passion that had been smouldering within him so long, unsuspected in its
    intensity even by himself, was now beginning to be-stir itself, and
    shoot forth jets of flame. "Why have you let yourself be with me--why
    have you made yourself necessary to me--if I was nothing to you?"

    Sophie, in the extreme depths of her degradation and abasement, became
    all at once quiet and composed. She lifted her face, pale, and smitten
    with suffering, from her hands, and, folding them in her lap, looked at
    Bressant calmly, because she understood herself at last, and felt that
    the time for hiding her head in shame had gone by.

    "You have _not_ been nothing to me," said she, "though I didn't know it
    before, or, rather, I _would_ not. I had an idea that I was leading you
    up to higher things, as an angel might, and all the time I was making
    use of God's truth and recommendation, as it were, to gratify and shield
    my own selfishness and--" here her voice sank, and her lips quivered,
    and grew dry, but she waited, and struggled, and finally went on--"and
    immodesty. I don't know why I should tell you this--except that I've
    told you every thing else, and this may save you from some of the wrong
    the rest has done you. But the most of it must remain irreparable." A
    long sigh quivered up from Sophie's heart, and quivered down again, like
    a pebble sinking through the water. Such a sigh, in a woman, is the sign
    of what can scarcely come twice in a lifetime.

    "I don't understand any thing about that; I don't want to!" exclaimed
    Bressant, with an impetuous gesture. "What you've done seems to have
    been better than what you meant to do, at any rate. You've made yourself
    every thing to me. Say that I am as much to you, and what more do we
    need? Say it! say it!" and, in the vehemence of his appeal, the sick man
    half raised himself from his bed.

    "I cannot! I cannot!" said Sophie, in a low, penetrating voice of
    suffering. "If you were the lowest of all men, I could not. I came to
    you in the guise of an angel, and what I have done, what woman is there
    that would not blush at it? It may not be too late to save you--"

    "Stop!" cried Bressant, with an accent of hoarse, masculine command,
    such as she could not gainsay. "It is too late!--I will not be saved!
    Look in my eyes, Sophie Valeyon, and tell me the name of what you see
    there!"

    Her sad, gray eyes, stern to herself, but tender and soft to him, as a
    cloud ready to melt in rain-drops, met his, which were alight with all
    the fire that an aroused and passionate spirit could kindle in them. She
    saw what she had never beheld before indeed, but the meaning of which no
    woman ever yet mistook. It was her work--the assurance of her
    disgrace--the offspring of her self-seeking and unwomanly behavior; and
    yet, as she looked, the blood rose gradually to her pale cheeks, and
    stained them with a deeper and yet deeper spot of red; her glance caught
    a spark from his, and her fragile and drooping figure seemed to dilate
    and grow stately, as if inspired by some burst of glorious music.
    Bressant, in the mid-whirl and heat of his emotion, fell back upon the
    pillow, whence he had partly raised himself, trembling from head to
    foot.

    "Is it love?" he said, in a smothered tone that was scarcely more than a
    whisper. He was beaten down and overawed by the might and grandeur of
    the passion which, growing in his own breast, had become a giant that
    swayed and swept all things before it.

    "Yes--love!" said Sophie, in a voice like the soft ring of a silver
    trumpet. Her heart was steadied and strengthened by what mastered him.
    "Love--it is above every thing else. It has brought me down so
    low--perhaps, through God's mercy, it is the path by which I may rise
    again. You will guide me, dear?"

    And, with a gesture of divine humility, she put her hand in his, and
    looked down, with the smile brightening mistily in her eyes.

    At that moment--recalled, perhaps, by a chance similarity in position,
    gesture, or expression--came over him, like a sudden chill and darkness,
    the memory of his last interview with Cornelia.
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