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    Chapter 29

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    Chapter 29
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    Sophie, having carried her point regarding her wedding-dress, had
    nothing better to do after Cornelia had left her than to give herself up
    to reverie. She had a private purpose to sit up until her sister's
    return, that she might hear all about Bressant, and why he had stayed
    away so long and sent no word. That he had returned, expecting to meet
    her at the ball, she entertained not the slightest doubt; nor was there
    at this time any suspicion or misgiving in her mind about his fidelity
    and love.

    Mankind's ignorance of the future is, beyond dispute, a blessing; yet we
    could wish, for Sophie, that so much presentiment of what was to come
    might be hers as to lead her to concentrate all possible happy thoughts
    into the few hours that remained wherein she might yet be happy. She had
    full scope and freedom to think what she would--no less than if a
    hundred years of earthly bliss had awaited her. Her life had been full
    of all manner of spiritual beauties and perfumes--a divine poem, though
    written upon clay. Let only the harmony of sweet music float about her
    now, and the shadow of what was to come be not cast over her.

    She sat in her deep, soft easy-chair, with its high back, and square,
    roomy seat. An open-grate stove furnished light to the room, for Sophie
    had blown out her candle. As the flame rose or sank, the various objects
    round about stood visible, or vanished duskily away. Endymion, over the
    mantel-piece, still slept as peacefully as ever, and the smile, though
    forever upon his lips, seemed always to have but that moment alighted
    there. How tenderly the lustrous touch of the moon brightened on his
    white shoulder!

    The golden letters of the Lord's Prayer gleamed ever and anon from the
    shadow above the bed, and sent the shining beauty of a sentence across
    to Sophie's eyes; and the face of the cherub, with his chin upon his
    hand, was turned upward in immortal adoration. Sophie's glance rested
    thoughtfully upon one and then the other. They were incorporated into
    her life. Would they have power to protect her from evil and suffering?
    Well, the words of the Prayer settle that question most wisely.

    How silent the house was and how light it was out-doors! Sophie rose
    from her chair by the fire and walked slowly to the window. A board
    creaked beneath her quiet foot and a red coal fell with a gentle thud
    into the ash-receiver. Then, as Sophie leaned against the window, she
    heard the little ormolu clock, in the room below, faintly tinkle out the
    half-hour after eleven. Before long--in an hour, perhaps--Cornelia would
    be back, rosy with the cold, fresh, laughing, and full of news. Dear
    Neelie! How Sophie wished that she might find a love as deep and a
    happiness as perfect as had come to her. It hardly seemed fair that she
    should monopolize so much of the world's joy. True, God knows best; but
    Sophie, with her forehead against the cold window-pane, prayed that
    Cornelia might speedily become as blessed as herself. Then she turned
    to go back to her chair, casting a parting glance at the white road,
    with the glistening track of sleigh-runners visible as far as the bend.
    No moving thing was in sight. In stepping from the window her foot
    caught in the skirt of her wedding-dress, and she narrowly escaped
    falling. The loose board creaked again, dismally; but Sophie laughed at
    her clumsiness, and, recovering her balance, reached her chair and sat
    down in it. How warm and pleasant it was! The walls of the room seemed
    to draw up cozily around the stove, and nod to one another
    good-naturedly. They loved Sophie and would do all they could to make
    her comfortable and secure. She sat quite still, and perhaps fell into a
    light, half-waking slumber.

    A while afterward, she suddenly started in her chair, her head raised,
    as if listening. The fire burnt as warmly as ever, but Sophie was
    trembling incontrollably, and her heart was beating most unmercifully.
    She walked quickly and blindly, with outstretched hands, to the window.
    This time the ominous board forbore to creak. Its omen was fulfilled.

    Without hesitating, she threw up the window, and, unmindful of the
    tingling inrush of cold air, she leaned out, and looked down through the
    arched window of the porch. The bare vines that struggled across it
    afforded no interception to the view of the two figures standing within.
    Sophie gazed at them as a bird does at a snake; she could not take her
    eyes away; she could not move nor utter a sound. It was like the
    oppression and paralysis of a fearful dream. Was she dreaming?

    It was a terribly vivid dream, at any rate. She seemed to see one of
    the figures--a woman--clasp the man's hand passionately in hers and
    speak. The voice was known to her; it was as familiar as her own; but
    the words it uttered made her sure she was asleep. Thank God! it wasn't
    real. She would wake up in a moment, and shudder to think how ugly a
    dream it had been. Oh, if she could only awaken before this conversation
    went any further! It was breaking her heart: it was killing her. She had
    heard of people who died in their sleep--was it from such dreams as

    She seemed to have heard two voices--voices that she loved and knew as
    well as her own heart--talking a horrible, unholy jargon about some
    purpose--some plan--something that it was a sin even to listen to or
    imagine; but, as in a dream, she had no choice but to listen. She tried
    to shake off the delusion--to see, to prove that what she saw and heard
    was false. But still it lasted, and lasted. Still those wicked sentences
    kept creeping into her ears and deadening her heart. O God! would it
    never cease--would there never be an end?

    At length the end seemed about to come. But, ah! the end was worst of
    all. Shame--shame to her that such sinful imaginings should visit her
    brain. She saw the figure of the man turn away as if to go; but the
    woman caught him by the arm, and lifted her beautiful, guilty face up
    toward his as if beseeching him for a parting kiss. She saw him stoop
    his dark, bearded head, with a half-impatient gesture, and kiss the
    beautiful woman's mouth, then motion her toward the house. "Make haste
    and put on your travelling dress," he seemed to say; "I'll walk up the
    road a little way and wait for you."

    Sophie found power to slip down from the window after that, but she knew
    she was dreaming still. She heard a stealthy footstep on the stairs and
    along the entry; it seemed to pause, and hesitate a moment at her door;
    but then it went on and entered Cornelia's room. If she only could go to
    her lover, Sophie thought. If she only could speak to him and feel his
    arms around her. And why should she not? he had but just gone up the
    road. She would slip out and run after him. It was deadly cold: she was
    in her white wedding-dress. Yes; but then it was a dream--nothing but a
    dream--no harm could come of it.

    She lifted herself softly from the floor, and moved toward the door. She
    passed the looking-glass on the dressing-table as she went, and cast a
    darkling glance into it. A haggard ghost seemed to stare back at her,
    with crazy eyes. A braid of brown, silky hair had become loosened, and
    was creeping down upon the spectre's shoulders.

    Sophie stole along as noiselessly as a cat. She descended the staircase,
    glided down the passage, opened the outer door, and was on the frozen
    porch. The chill of the air passed through her as if she had been indeed
    but a spirit. The dream must surely be a dream of death. She ran down
    the icy path to the gate, and, looking along the road, saw that a tall
    figure had nearly reached the spur of the hill, around which the road
    turned. By hurrying she would yet be able to over-take him. She passed
    through the gate without causing a creak or a rattle, gathered up her
    light skirt, and started to run as speedily as she might.

    The cold snow penetrated through her thin slippers and made her feet
    ache and sting. The breeze forced a cruel entrance through the bosom of
    her dress, as if to freeze the heart that was beating so. As she ran on,
    she began to pant so heavily it seemed as if every breath must be her
    last. The familiar road, the well-known outline of the hills, the
    stone-walls, the stretch of woods to the left, where she had walked so
    often last fall, all looked now ghastly and unreal--a world whose only
    sun was the moon--a fitting world for such a dream as this.

    Still she staggered onward, slipping in the polished ruts of the
    sleigh-runners, plunging into the deep snow. Her body was cold as the
    winter itself, but her head was burning as if a fire were within it. She
    reached the bend, and her eyes strained wildly up the road. There! far
    ahead, marked black against the ghastly snow--there! still moving
    away--farther away. Would she ever reach him?

    It was hopeless, and yet she kept on. Rather than let him go without
    having assured her it was all a wicked dream--without having hugged her
    in his arms, and given her her good-night kiss--without having called
    her his own, only Sophie, and promised he would always love her and no
    other--rather than give up all this, she would die in the pursuit, and
    it were well that she should die. So on she ran: her brain reeled, she
    could scarcely feel whether her limbs yet moved: there was a griping in
    her heart, and her breath came in short gasps of agony. The earth
    darkened and tipped before her eyes, but her resolve never faltered. To
    reach him, or die. Oh! how gladly she would die, if only she might
    reach him. Was not that he--there--only a short way on? Might not her
    voice reach him? Would not some good angel bear it to him? Even then she
    stumbled, and fell forward on her knees; but, ere she sank quite down,
    she threw forth a wild, piercing, despairing cry, giving to it her whole
    desolate soul--

    "Bressant! Bressant!"

    Then blackness obliterated every thing. But Bressant, as he walked
    heavily along, encompassed with bitter and miserable thoughts, suddenly
    halted, as if an iron hand had been laid upon his shoulder. Either he
    had actually heard a faint echo of that unearthly cry, or his spiritual
    ear had taken cognizance of the call of Sophie's soul. He turned himself
    about, with a quaking heart. There was the long white road, but no human
    being was visible upon it. Yet he knew that Sophie's voice had called
    him. She must be near. Slowly he began to walk back, half dreading to
    behold her image rise before him, with deep, reproachful eyes.

    He had not gone twenty yards, when he started back, having almost set
    his foot upon something which lay face downward in the snow, clad in a
    dress almost as white. He would not have seen her but for her brown
    hair, which, falling loosely about, was caught and stirred by the
    inquisitive breeze. She herself lay quite still.

    Bressant took her beneath the arms, and lifted her up. Crouching down,
    he supported her head against his shoulder, and brushed away the snow
    that had adhered to her face. There was a cut upon her chin, but the
    blood, after running a few moments, had congealed. Her eyes were not
    quite shut, but the lids were stiff and immovable. The mouth, too, was a
    little open. Was it the moonlight that gave her that death-like look? or
    was she dead indeed?

    The young man broke out into a long, wavering cry. It was not weeping;
    it was not laughter; yet it bore a resemblance to both. It curdled his
    own blood, but he could not repress it. It was the voice of
    overstrained, unendurable emotion, and a horrible voice it was to hear.
    He feared he was losing his senses--looking in that white, motionless
    face, and uttering such a cry! At last, however, it died away, and there
    was silence. The silence was almost worse than the cry--the utter
    silence of a winter night.

    "What shall I do?" he said to himself, helplessly.

    The unearthly voice, and the discovery to which it had led, following
    the other events of the night, had made Bressant unfit to deal with this
    matter after his usual ready and practical style. But he would have
    found the problem an awkward one at his best. How could he appear at the
    Parsonage? What account could he give there of this lifeless body? What
    account could he give of it to himself? He was utterly bewildered and
    aghast. It seemed that the dead had risen from the grave, to drag him
    relentlessly back to the fullest glare of earthly ignominy--to the
    keenest experience of human suffering. And yet, did he quite deserve it?
    Was there no grain of leaven in his lump of sinfulness and weakness, if
    all were known? He is a hardened criminal, indeed, who can find no hope
    in the thought of appealing from human judgment to Divine!

    Meanwhile, Mr. Reynolds had been luxuriating in a very unmistakable
    sense of injury. To some persons there are a positive relief and
    gratification in being really wronged: it raises their estimate of their
    own importance: by virtue of their title to feel angry, disappointed, or
    deceived, they can take their place in a higher than their ordinary
    rank. So Mr. Reynolds, finding himself qualified to plead a clear case
    of absolute and unwarrantable desertion, held up his head, and bore
    himself with becoming dignity.

    His dignity did not, however, interfere with his seeking to drown his
    slight in the good, old-fashioned way. He solaced himself beyond
    prudence with the varied products of the hotel bar, and then settled
    himself solitary in his sleigh and jingled homeward. His road took him
    past the Parsonage, and he enlivened the lonely way by scraps of songs,
    reflections upon the perfidy of women, and portentous yawns at intervals
    of two or three minutes. In fact, by the time he had gone a mile the
    most predominant sensation he had was sleepiness, and half a mile more
    came very near making a second Endymion of him. From this, however, he
    was preserved by the very sudden stoppage of his sleigh, which threw him
    on his knees against the dasher, and forcibly knocked his eyes open. He
    rolled over to the ground, but, happening to light on his feet, he stood
    unsteadily erect, and asked a very tall and powerful man, who was
    holding his horse's head, when he was going to let that drop?

    Receiving no intelligible answer, he stumbled in the powerful man's
    direction, perhaps contemplating the performance of some deed of
    desperate valor. Meanwhile the object of his hostility had relinquished
    his hold of the horse, and appeared kneeling on the ground, supporting
    the form of a woman, dressed in a tasteful white dress, with dark,
    disordered hair lying around her colorless face.
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