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    Chapter 26

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    Chapter 26
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    BRESSANT TAKES A VACATION.

    Friday, December 30th, was the day appointed for Abbie's ball, and the
    morning of the 28th had already dawned. Bressant stood, with his arms
    folded, at the window of his room, watching the downfall of a thickening
    snow-storm which had set in the previous midnight. There had evidently
    been no delay or intermission in the cold, white, silent business; to
    look out-of-doors was enough to make the flesh seem thin upon the bones.

    In spite of the snow, however, the little room was feverishly hot, owing
    to the gigantic exertions of the small iron cylinder-stove. The round
    aperture over the little door was glowing red, like an enraged eye; and
    the quivering radiation of the heat from the polished black surface was
    plainly perceptible to the sight. The room had lost something of the
    neat and fastidious appearance which it had worn a few months before.
    The colored drawing of a patent derrick, fastened to the wall by a tack
    at each corner of the paper, had broken loose at one end, and was
    curling over on itself like a withered leaf. The string by which the
    ingenious almanac had been suspended over the mantel-piece was broken,
    letting the almanac neatly down into the crevice between the wall and a
    couple of fat dictionaries, which lay, one on top of the other, upon the
    ledge. It was quite hidden from view, with the exception of one corner,
    which was a little tilted upward, showing the hole through which the
    faithless string had passed.

    The terrestrial and astronomical globes bore the appearance of not
    having revolved for a long time. A part of the pictured surface of the
    latter had scaled off, disclosing a blank whiteness beneath. Even the
    heavens, it seemed, were a sham; nothing more than a varnished painting
    upon a plaster-of-Paris foundation. The flower-pots still stood in the
    windows, but hot air and an irregular water-supply had made sad inroads
    upon the beauty of the plants. The lower leaves were turned brown; some
    of them had fallen off, and lay--poor, little unburied corpses--upon the
    narrow circle of earth which, having failed to keep life green within
    their cells, now denied to them the right of sepulture. A few of the
    topmost sprouts still struggled to keep up a parody of verdure, and one
    or two faded flowers had not yet forsaken their calices--a silly piece
    of devotion on their part! Icy little blasts, squeezing in through the
    crevices of the window-sash, whistled about the forlorn stalks, cutting
    and venomous. The poor flowers would never see another summer; better
    give up at once!

    Even the books which met the eye on every side, wore a deserted air. Not
    that they were dusty, for the chambermaid did her duty, if Bressant
    failed in his; but there was something in the heavy, methodical manner
    of their sleeping upon one another, such as they could never have
    settled into had they been recently disturbed or opened. The outside of
    a book is often as eloquent, in its way, as any part of the contents.

    Bressant's arms were folded, and the perpendicular line up from between
    the eyebrows was quite in harmony with the rest of his appearance. He
    was weary, harassed, and divided against himself. Insincerity made him
    uncomfortable; it compelled continual exertion, and of a paltry and
    degrading kind; and it gave neither a sense of security, nor a prospect
    of future advantage. Five days from now he was to be married; the duties
    of a parish minister were to be undertaken, and he felt himself neither
    mentally nor morally fitted or inclined for the office. Five days from
    now the professor would expect from him that gift at which he had hinted
    during their drive; and he had done nothing, either in act or purpose,
    to fulfil his promise concerning it.

    He was cut off from all sympathy. How could he confide to Sophie the
    very wrong he meditated against herself--the very deception he was
    practising upon her father? And what other person in the world was there
    to whom he might venture to betake himself? Cornelia?--not yet! he dared
    not yet yield himself to the influence he felt she was exercising over
    him; the surrender implied too much; matters had not gone far enough.
    But did there not lurk, in the bottom of his heart, a presentiment that
    it was to her alone he would hereafter be able to look for countenance
    and comfort? And would he avail himself of the refuge? When those whom
    their friends--whether justly or not--have abandoned, chance to stumble
    upon some oasis of unconditional affection, they are not squeamish about
    its source or orthodoxy; if the sentiment be sincere and hearty, that
    is enough. In the present case, moreover, Cornelia, as a last resort,
    was by no means so uninviting an object as she might have been.

    But since the question lay between his fortune and Falsehood on one
    side, and a wife and Truth on the other, how was it possible for him to
    pause in his decision? Undoubtedly, had the young man once fairly
    admitted to himself that his choice lay between these two bare
    alternatives, he would have been spared much of the misery arising from
    casuistry and duplicity. But people are loath to acknowledge any course
    to be, beyond all appeal, right or wrong; they amuse themselves with
    fancying some modification--some new condition--some escape; any thing
    to get away from the grim face of the inevitable. Bressant, for
    instance, might surely succeed in consummating his marriage with Sophie,
    no matter what else he left undone; and that being once irrevocably on
    his side of the balance, all that was vital to his happiness was secure;
    by a quick stroke he might capture the fortune likewise, and could then
    afford to laugh at the world.

    This scheme, however, otherwise practical enough, involved a fallacy in
    its most important point. A marriage so contracted, with a woman of
    Sophie's character, could by no possibility turn out a happy or even
    endurable union. She would not be likely long to survive it; if she did,
    it would be to suffer a life more painful than any death; for no one
    depended more than Sophie upon integrity and nobility in those she
    loved; and the break in her family relations would be another source of
    agony to her, and of consequent remorse and misery to her husband. No:
    to bind her life to his, unless he could also compel her respect and
    admiration, would be a good deal worse than useless.

    He must, then--and there was yet time--resign his fortune, and accept
    Sophie and a clear conscience, poverty and a country parish. But persons
    who have wealth absolutely in their power, to take or to leave, sec
    clearly how much poetical extravagance, hypocrisy, and cant exist in the
    arguments of those who advocate the beauties and advantages of being
    poor. Deliberately and voluntarily to forego the opportunities, the
    influence, the ease, the refinement, which money alone can command--let
    not the sacrifice be underrated! Few, perhaps, have had the choice
    fairly offered them: of those, how many have chosen poverty? In
    Bressant's case, the fact that the money was not legally his, was,
    abstractly, enough to settle the matter; but in real life, where every
    one is expected to do battle for his claims, it would only be an
    argument for holding on the harder. If he could but manage to be happily
    married and wealthy both! He would not confess it impossible; at all
    events, he would delay the confession till the very latest hour, and
    then trust to the impulse of the moment for his final decision and
    action. He had given up, it seemed, that promising idea of trusting to
    the generosity of the rightful owner; yet, considering their mutual
    relation, and one or two minor circumstances, he might certainly do so
    without misgiving, embarrassment, or dishonor.

    "It's that infernal letter!" muttered the young man between his teeth,
    staring gloomily out at the cheerless snow-storm. "I wish it had never
    been written. No! that I could feel sure there was no truth in it."

    Turning from the window, he stepped over to the table, and dropped
    himself into his chair. He took from his pocket a well-worn envelope,
    hardly capable of holding on to the inclosed letter, which peeped forth
    at the corners, and through various rents in the front and back. He did
    not open it, for he had long known by heart every word and italic in it;
    but, placing it in front of him, he leaned upon his elbows, with his
    forehead resting between his hands, and gazed fixedly down upon it. It
    is an assistance to the vividness of thought to have some object in
    sight connected with the matter under consideration.

    "Ought I to have answered it?" ran his soliloquy: for though he had
    frequently taken counsel with himself concerning this letter before, he
    recurred again and again to the subject, pleasing himself with the hope
    that still, in some way, a fortunate ray of light might be struck out;
    "but, if I had, what should I have gained by it? It's as well not to
    have risked putting any thing on paper; and if she really has the proofs
    she talks about, I shall hear from her again, and soon, for she knows
    which is my wedding-day; and it must all be decided, one way or another,
    before then. But she couldn't have made the assertion if she hadn't
    known some good grounds for it; and yet I can't understand it--I
    cannot." He pressed his temples strongly between his hands, and chewed
    his brown mustache. "As to my having 'no legal claim to a cent,' I knew
    that before. What puzzles me is, 'There is no consideration--not a
    _shadow_ of relationship, or affection, or generosity--nothing to give
    you the least _prospect_ of receiving any thing.' How can that be? And
    yet what she says at the end--it sounds more like a threat she knows she
    can fulfil than an attempt to humbug." Bressant took his right hand from
    his forehead, and tapped with his finger on the envelope as he repeated
    the words: "If this is enough--convinces you without your requiring
    proof--it would be much pleasanter for you, and a great relief to me.
    Oh! beyond _words_! But if not--if you will _go on_ entangling yourself
    with this foolish girl, Sophie, and this boarding-house keeper, and
    all--I _shall_ be obliged--I shall hate to _do_ it, but there will be no
    alternative--to give you the _explanation_ of what I tell you now."

    "Well! let her!" cried the young man, rising roughly from his chair, and
    shouldering backward and forward across his room with short, incensed
    steps. "If her proofs can prevent my marriage, let her bring them. She'd
    better be quick about it! Four days from now! They'd better never have
    come at all. It's her interest as much as mine--more than mine. She's a
    half-crazy old creature. She can do nothing for herself. If she has any
    thing to say, let her say it. I'm no baby, to shape my life after an old
    woman's story. Who is she? What is she to me?

    "Let something happen, I say," continued he, stretching out his great
    arms, with the fists clinched. "I'm tired of this--the life of a dog
    with his tail between his legs. Is it _I_ who go about, afraid to look
    man or woman in the face? Am I the same who came here six months ago?
    Did I come here to learn this? Who was it taught it to me, then? I say,
    I've been deceived; it's no work of mine. Professor Valeyon--he's made
    me a subject for experiment; he's tried his theories on me; dissected
    me, and filled in the parts that were wanting. It's a dangerous
    business, Professor Valeyon. You've lost one daughter; the other may go
    too."

    Bressant's voice, which had been growing hoarser and more rapid as he
    went on, abruptly sank, at this last sentence, into a whisper; yet, had
    any one been there to listen, the whisper would have sounded louder and
    more terrible than the most violent vociferation of angry passion. It
    breathed a sudden concentration of evil intelligence, that startled like
    the hiss of a serpent.

    He stopped his short, passionate walk, and leaned against his table,
    with his arms once more folded. The idea that he had been tampered with
    had gained possession of him, and nothing tends more to demoralize a
    man, and make him unmanageably angry. His was an uncandid position,
    without doubt: he was attempting to lay upon others the responsibility
    which--the greater part of it, at least--should have been borne by
    himself; but still, the vein of reasoning he pursued was connected, and
    comprehensible, and was rendered awkward by an ugly little thread of
    something like truth and justice, which showed here and there along its
    course.

    "They've taught me to love; did they think they could stop there? that I
    shouldn't learn to lie, as well? and to hate, and be revengeful? and to
    be afraid? Was I so bad when I came here, that all this has made me no
    worse? I was happy, at any rate; my brain was clear; my mind had no
    fear, and no weariness--it was like an athlete; my blood was cool. Look
    at me now! Am not I ruined by this patching and mending? I can do no
    work. When I think, it's no longer of how I might become great, and
    wise, and powerful--of nothing inspiring--nothing noble; but all about
    these petty, heated, miserable affairs, that have twisted themselves
    around me, and are choking me up. I don't ask myself, any more, whether
    my name will be as highly honored and as long remembered as the
    Christian Apostles', and Mohammed's, and Luther's. My only question is,
    whether I'm to turn out more of a fool, or of a liar! And _I_ love
    Sophie Valeyon! I'm to be her husband."

    The young man came to a sudden stop, and slowly lifted his head. Through
    the sullen, unhappy, and resentful cloud that darkened his eyes, there
    glimmered doubtfully a light such as can be reflected only from what is
    most divine in man. It was a strange moment for it to appear, for at no
    time had Bressant's moral level been so low as now; but, happily, the
    phenomenon is by no means without precedent in human nature. God is
    never ashamed to declare the share He holds in a sinner's heart, however
    black the heart may be.

    "No, no!" said he; and, as he said it, the first tears that he had ever
    known glistened for a moment in his eyes; "such as I am, I must never
    marry her."

    The point on which this sudden and momentous resolve turned was so
    subtle and delicately evanescent as scarcely to be susceptible of
    clearer portrayal. To be consistent, the weight of his revengeful
    sentiments should have been directed upon Sophie, for she it was who had
    played the most effective part in changing his nature, and swerving him
    from his cold but sublime ambitions. By teaching Bressant love, she
    had, by implication, done him deadly injury, yet was the love itself so
    pure and genuine as to prompt him to resign its object; he being
    rendered unworthy of her by that same moral dereliction which she
    herself had occasioned.

    But the very quality which enables us to do a noble deed dulls our
    appreciation of our own praiseworthiness. Bressant took no encouragement
    or pleasure from what he had done; probably, also, his realization of
    the extensive and fearful consequences of the action, to others as well
    as to himself, was as yet but rudimentary; so soon as the momentary glow
    was passed, he fell back into a yet darker mood than before, and felt
    yet more adrift and reckless. To make a sacrifice is well, but does not
    hinder the need of what is given up from crippling us.

    Again the young man turned to the window, and, raising the sash, he
    secured it by the little button used for the purpose, and leaned out
    into the snow-storm. The flakes fell and melted upon his face, and
    caught in his bushy beard, and rested lightly upon his twisted hair.
    They flew into his eyes, and made little drifts upon the collar of his
    coat and in the folds of his sleeves. He gazed up toward the dull, gray
    cloud whence they came, and presently, out of the confusion, and
    carelessness, and morbid impatience of his heart, he put forth a prayer
    that some awfully stirring event might come to pass; let a sword pass
    through his life! let him be smitten down and trampled upon! let his
    mind be continually occupied with the extreme of active, living
    suffering! let there be no cessation till the end! He could accept it
    and exult in it; but to live on as he was living now was to walk
    open-eyed into insanity. Rather than that, he would commit some capital
    crime, and subject himself to the penalty. Let God take at least so much
    pity upon him, and grant him physical agony!

    It is not often that our prayers are answered, nor, when they are, does
    the answer come in the form our expectations shaped. Occasionally,
    however--and then, perhaps, with a promptness and completeness that
    force us to a realization of how extravagant and senseless our desires
    are--does fulfillment come upon us.

    As Bressant's strange petition went up through the storm, a sleigh came
    along from the direction of the railway-station. It was nothing but a
    cart on runners, and painted a dingy, grayish blue; it was loaded with a
    dozen tin milk-cans much defaced by hard usage, each one stopped with an
    enormous cork. The driver was clad in an overcoat which once had been
    dark brown or black, but had worn to a greenish yellow, except where the
    collar turned up around the throat, and showed the original color. His
    head and most of his face were enveloped in a knit woolen comforter, and
    mittens of the same make and material protected his hands. His legs were
    wrapped up in a gray horse-blanket. He was whitened here and there with
    snow, and snow was packed between the necks of the milk-cans. He drove
    directly toward the boarding-house, and he and Bressant caught sight of
    one another at the same moment.

    "Hallo!" called the stranger; "you're Bressant, I guess, ain't you? I've
    got something for you." Here he drew up beneath the window. "You see, I
    was down to the depot getting some milk aboard the up-train, and Davis,
    the telegraph-man, came up and asked me, 'Bill Reynolds, are you going
    up to Abbie's? 'cause,' says he, 'here's a telegraph has come for the
    student up there--him that's going to marry Sophie Valeyon--and our boy
    he's down with the influenza,' says he. 'I'm you're man!' says I, 'let's
    have it!' and here 'tis," added Mr. Reynolds, producing a yellow
    envelope from the bottom of his overcoat pocket.

    Bressant had heard little or nothing of the explanation volunteered by
    the bearer of the message, but he at once recognized the yellow
    telegraph-envelope, and comprehended the rest. But, ere he could leave
    the window to go down and receive it, he saw the fat servant-girl, who
    had witnessed the scene from the parlor, run down to the front-gate,
    sinking above her ankles at every step, take the envelope from Bill's
    mittened paw, exchange a word and a grin with him, and then return,
    carefully stepping into the holes she had made going out.

    Bill gave a nod of good-will to Bressant's window--for Bressant was no
    longer there--whipped up his nag, and jingled off with his milk-cans. In
    another minute the fat servant-girl, after stamping the remains of the
    snow off her shoes upon the door-mat, opened the door, and introduced
    the dispatch and her own smiling physiognomy. Bressant snatched the
    former, and shut the door in the latter, before the hand-wiping and
    haranguing had time to begin.

    Before opening the envelope, he stood up at his full height, and filled
    his lungs with a long, profound breath; then emitted it suddenly in a
    sort of deep, short growl, and took his seat at the table. He tore open
    the end of the envelope, pulled out the inclosure, which was an ordinary
    printed telegraph-blank, filled in with three lines of writing, as
    follows: "Been very ill come on at once at once must hear all no
    alternative" in the scrawly and unpunctuated chirography peculiar to
    written telegrams. The name signed was "M. Vauderp." Bressant read the
    message, and afterward carefully perused the printing, even down to the
    name of the printer's firm, which was given in very small type at the
    bottom of the paper. Then he glanced over the writing once more, and
    returned the paper to the envelope.

    "At once, at once!" muttered he; "that's the only way of writing italics
    in telegraphy, I suppose. Well, I'll go at once; it's ten now; there's a
    train at half-past."

    He unlocked a drawer in his table, and took from it a purse, which he
    put in his pocket. He buttoned a pea-jacket across his broad chest,
    pressed a round fur-cap on to his handsome head, took a pair of thick
    gloves from the mantel-piece, and walked away without giving one
    backward glance.

    The snow blew and drifted through the open window into the empty room;
    the few remaining flowers were hustled from their stalks; the red eye of
    the stove grew dimmer and dimmer, and finally faded into darkness, and
    the colored drawing of the patent derrick broke loose at another corner,
    and flapped and fluttered against the wall in crazy exultation.
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