05 Jan The Conquering Will
The Conquering Will by Harriet Prescott Spofford, 1901.
The Conquering Will
THERE was no doubt that he was a masterful man. He ruled everyone on shore as he had ruled everyone at sea. His wife had never meant to marry him; but she did. When the fleet went into Asiatic waters she had declared she would not follow; but she did. When the child died she had wished to clothe herself in black; but she didn’t. Wherever he was Captain Gilbert’s will was the only will. Whenever she resisted him she felt like a wave shattering itself to foam against a rock in the mid-seas.
Sometimes she wondered if there were any hypnotic quality about him. Her mother had said she was possessed. But she really knew better. So far as she was concerned, she knew that the reason the Captain had his own way was simply because she loved him. And so far as everyone else was concerned, she was glad he did have his own way.
She had at first admired Captain Gilbert more than she loved him—admired his superb and stalwart figure of the large, heroic type; his Greek head, ringed over with short, yellow curls; his bold features, his eyes, that had in them the blue of the skies but also the glance of the eagle; his commanding air. And moreover, his manner, when he chose, had an inexpressible charm that carried all before it. No one dared contend with him—and then no one wished to do so. No wonder he was a masterful man. He was never resisted; and the habit had become nature.
Indeed, his wife hardly knew, after a while, when she had a wish other than her husband’s. It is true she thought blue more becoming, but he liked to see her in pink, and she always went about like a lovely blush rose. It was also true that there had been a time when she cared for dancing; but Captain Gilbert would not endure the familiarity of the waltz, and so she never waltzed—when Captain Gilbert was looking. It is true she enjoyed the theatre; but Captain Gilbert prepared to go to church, and she went to church, and felt afterward very righteous and content.
But on the other hand, she loved riding; and the Captain kept her provided with a mount that was the envy of all the other women in the field. He himself rode like a centaur, and she never admired him more than in the saddle. She was fond of sea bathing, and he took for her every Summer a little place by the seaside, and none of the mer-people ever disported themselves with more sense of possession of the deep sea caves than they did. She would have enjoyed land travel; but Captain Gilbert preferred seafaring, so that she never saw any other world than the world of waters. She recovered from her seasickness after a few days, and then took keenest pleasure in the bounding and soaring from billow to billow, as if she were a seagull sitting on the wave or flying over it. Alone, too, in the vast region of sunlit sky and sea, or when night carried space into dark infinity, or when they rode triumphant over storm, and every man on the yacht was a machine moved by the Captain’s will, he seemed to her each time a more positive potency than before.
But if the Captain had his own way in the outside things of life his way was usually right. It was because he said that it simply should be done that the salary of Dr. Saintly was raised to living limit. It was he who, when the rest of the town where he lived when off duty frowned down an embezzling bank officer who had served his term in prison, insisted that the man should be helped to work and to respect again. It was he who brought home a forsaken woman of the place, and required civility for her so long as she did right. “If there is one thing certain,” said the Captain, “it is that love is the best thing in the world. And I mean, Fanny, that you and I shall be as much at one with this great spirit filling the universe as holding the helpful hand to all can make us.”
Perhaps, however, the Captain would not have carried things so before him if all his little world had not known of certain splendid achievements in the sea fights, giving him, in a measure, the right to his own way, giving him also the wounds that enforced his retirement and shortened his life. Wherever they were, people turned to look at him and to approve, and it gratified Mrs. Gilbert as much as when they turned to look at her—she was the woman whom this wonder among men had chosen out of all the women on the earth. But they always found it well worth their while to look at her. “The Lord may have thought He made the most beautiful thing possible when He made this rose,” the Captain said to her once, stooping to a wayside bramble, “but I think He made the most beautiful thing when He made a woman. And you are a woman and a rose, too!”
“You make me blush,” said Mrs. Gilbert; “and here, on the street!” They were going home from church across the fields. “Yes, I should wonder why I was given such a wife if it were not that she has such a husband,” he added, laughing. And when Captain Gilbert laughed Mrs. Gilbert felt that the world went well, and she laughed, too. And she never looked prettier than when her red lips curved apart over the rice-pearl teeth, and disclosed ravishing little dimples in either velvet cheek.
But possibly Captain Gilbert could not have so completely dominated his wife if she had not felt in him a fine superiority to the small things of life and had not had a fearsome joy in sometimes following his thought out into what he called the Fourth Dimension. “This earth and its envelopings are beautiful,” he said, “but when I remember that there are colors we cannot see, sounds too fine for our ears, I know we are only spelling the alphabet of all we shall find—out there. Nights when I have walked the deck, virtually alone, and have seen the stars sentineling the great courts of space beyond space, I have felt sure they were made for no idleness—that there were reasons for their being; and in some form or other we shall tread their mazes and come out upon the reason for all things. ” She did not entirely understand him; but it may be that she admired him all the more on that account.
But there was one thing in which Captain Gilbert failed to have his own way. One thing?—two things! He could not hinder men from staring at Mrs. Gilbert, and he could not hinder Mrs. Gilbert from showing—in the mildest mannered way—that she was conscious of the gaze and possibly not unpleased. “I am sure I can’t help their looking at me,” she pouted, turning away from the window.
“You can help making eyes at them!” he replied.
“Captain Gilbert! What language!”
“Suiting the word to the action.”
“And as if I could help my eyes!” the tears making them like live jewels.
“I know they’re beautiful eyes!” said the Captain, remorsefully. “But they’re my eyes! They don’t belong to every fool going by.”
“I never knew such a tyrant! You’re like the man in the ‘Morte d’Arthur’ who wanted his wife hideous before the court, but beautiful when alone with him.”
“Precisely,” said Captain Gilbert, laughing. “And I wish we had those days back—days when a man owned his wife, like any other precious thing, till a stronger took her——”
“It’s always a stronger that takes her, one way or another.”
“He’ll be stronger than the laws of the universe if he takes you, that’s all,” said the Captain, lifting her in his arms and walking down the room with her as if she had been a child; “for by all the laws of the universe you are mine! And mine you will be forever, alive or dead!” And, to her troubled amazement, he was sobbing. “Fanny,” he cried, “if you married another man after I died—after I died—if I were in the farthest star of the farthest heavens I should come back and punish him!”
“Oh!” cried Mrs. Gilbert. Then, through her own tears: “Why not leave that to me?”
Mrs. Gilbert was one of the women with whom this brigand-like way of making love is effective. And when, shortly afterward, Captain Gilbert betook himself to the farthest star and left her widowed, she missed the excitations and the raptures and the sense of being adored, even if tyrannized over; and she was not at all consoled by the fact that she looked charming in black, which there was no one now to forbid her.
But a little time works wonders. Mrs. Gilbert one day woke to the fact that she was free, with no one to say her nay; free as a bird in the air. At least, she would have been free if she had had any money to be free with. But Captain Gilbert’s half-pay had stopped with his breath, and there was a delay about pension business and about other money, during which Mrs. Gilbert found herself so hard pressed as to be almost in despair about ways and means. And when Mr. Mercer proposed that she share a million with him, she was in more minds than one about accepting the idea, and she actually asked for time. Captain Gilbert, she reasoned, would never want her to be put about this way for money—her mourning was positively shabby. And she thought of it very seriously—it might do—Mr. Mercer was a gentleman. But when he called for his reply she came down, white to her lips, so white that she was ghastly, and said it was impossible.
It was the same way with Dr. Vaughn. It seemed so eminently respectable, so altogether what the gossips would have called too good a chance to lose, she would be so well cared for—and she was just on the point of yielding. But after a night’s reflection she wrote that it was out of the question, her hand shaking so that her script looked like a field of wheat bowed in the wind.
And after that she went for a while so sedately, so demurely, so entirely as the fond and faithful widow should, that who but the rector should be acknowledging her fascination? And she knew in her heart that she would be a capital wife for a clergyman, that she might have the parish under her little thumb—she, a helpmeet better than the best! She said to herself it was a pity if she could not do as she pleased; she smiled on him; she came near giving him her hand to kiss in token of the ring it might wear presently. And then she sent him in his turn the hurried note that laid all hope low.
Captain Gilbert had been lost to the breathing world almost half a dozen years, and his wife was as much like a lovely blooming rose as ever, when John Mowbray crossed her path. And he not only crossed it, but he obstructed it. The years had passed quietly; her affairs had adjusted themselves; although she could have spent more, she was no longer in need of money. She had almost forgotten Mr. Mercer and his successors in misfortune. And John Mowbray was a man of an unfamiliar and engaging type. He loved music, the opera, Wagner; she had never had enough of music in her life. He was more or less of a student, acquainted with books, a haunter of libraries; it seemed to her that he held the gates open to a fair and inviting plaisance. Well born and well bred, he had the air, without having traveled much, of knowing men and manners and the world; but to travel was his intention—and she saw the gates open to a life of infinitely wider interest than this small daily round. He was on the sunny side, as she was; with a most agreeable personality, with a delightful courtesy, and as she began to suspect, with a sincere affection for herself.
He had come to see her, that snowy night, through all the storm, bringing her an armful of great red roses. There was something very pleasant about his coming in; it gave her a feeling of protection, emphasized the idea of shelter. She heaped the fire and presently the ruddy flames danced over the room and the flowers, and over the pretty woman disposing them in their bowls and jars, till it all seemed to John Mowbray, still warming his hands at the blaze, the ideal of a home. What a place to come to every night! What a place never to go away from! What a dream!
She knew what was coming very well. Some subtle instinct made her try to fortify herself against it. She sat down behind a table and leaned forward, rearranging with twinkling fingers the roses in the vase that nearly hid her face. And then in another moment he was half-kneeling beside her, and he was murmuring, “Fanny, Fanny! let it be real—this dream. I am dreaming! Tell me not to wake! Say, dear, say that you love me!” And before she knew it the strong arms were about her, and she was hiding her face on his shoulder.
What an evening of deep, serene happiness it was! Side by side they looked into the future, and its glow shed a light over them. “It is too much, too much happiness,” she said, as they parted. “Something will hinder. I—I shall not be allowed—” And she grew very pale.
“Thank heaven, there is no one to allow or to disallow,” said John Mowbray. “You are not now the young girl to be dominated, but the woman whose beautiful nature has developed the power to choose, and I am crowned and blessed by your choice!”
“I am afraid—I am afraid—” she said, as he bade her good-night.
“Of what, my love?” he asked her.
“Oh, of nothing, of nothing, so long as you are here!” she said, clinging to him more closely.
And “I am afraid!” she repeated again, as she went up stairs, though trembling with joy.
She had half a mind to sit up that night and not go to sleep at all. She dropped the curtain quickly as she saw the stars sparkling in the sky from which the snow clouds were already blowing away. The thought of that farthest star would come back and make her shiver. But she was tired out with emotion—with hope and joy and fear—and she fell asleep in the big armchair just as Captain Gilbert came into the room, strong, stalwart, mighty, and looking like the hero of some Viking legend.
The wind had blown a fine color into his face; his curls were sprayed with the melted snow, his eyes were as dazzlingly blue as a noonday sky. “I have come a long way to see you, my wife,” he said, and the old familiar tone rang sweetly through all the chambers of her heart. “And I never saw you lovelier. How dear, how beautiful you are! How long we have belonged to each other! Do you remember the night by the gate under the honeysuckles, when you reached out your hand in the dark, uncertain if I was there, and suddenly I clasped it? Dear hand! I have never, never let it go! I never will! I saw a sapphire as blue as Lyra on my way here. I will have it for this little hand—only the band is so slight, the sapphire is so heavy. How quiet it is here—it is always quiet about you, my wife—you are so serene, and your husband is so stormy! Here is the smell of roses that always hovers about you—oh, how sweet, how sweet you are! Up, and let me sit down and hold you in my arms, you featherweight! There, rest the dear head. What makes you shiver so? It is warm. I am here—your husband. Warm? I am warm to my marrow, being with you, holding you, living again the delicious life we used to live. Oh, what life will be again with you, most perfect of women, most faithful of wives! I have been so cold, so far off, so longing for you! What ways I have traversed, what have I encountered, just for this hour! And it is worth it all. There are great things in store for us, little woman. Lean your cheek on mine—how velvet soft, how warm—you are mine, mine, mine——”
She heard, she remembered no more, but woke with the sun pouring into the window and streaming over her through the crimson warmth of the geraniums, and all her heart expanded with the old affection.
Suffused still with the mood of the night, she made her toilette and went down, thoughtless, reckless, almost gay—and met John Mowbray coming through the door, his sleigh-bells still jangling at the gate—he had come to take her sleighing. But at the first sight of his eager, expectant face she stopped. All her bloom fell away, she shook like a leaf; and he sprang forward, thinking she was about to fall. “No, no, no!” she cried. “Forget last night! Forget everything! It is impossible! It is out of the question. I am Captain Gilbert’s wife still. Captain Gilbert—will not—will not allow it.”
And then she dropped fainting into his arms.
She did not, however, lose consciousness entirely. She knew very well that John Mowbray was covering her face with kisses while carrying her to the sofa. The blood surged over her forehead in a conviction of guilt, and then she turned her face to the wall.
“What does this mean?” cried John Mowbray.
“He—he has been here,” she faltered.
“Who has been here?” he demanded.
“What—what is it you say?” he exclaimed, springing to his feet.
“He was here last night—I am not out of my head. Oh, no, I am not beside myself! He has been here before—the same way—whenever— Oh, see how unworthy I am!”
And she covered her face with her hands.
He seated himself on the edge of the sofa and took down the two hands, holding them in his own.
“You mean you dreamed last night,” he said.
“Oh, no, no! Dreamed? Oh, it was too real! Dreamed? I don’t know— Do you suppose it could be just a dream? Always the same dream, only with differences? And he so all he used to be when he was best and tenderest, making me feel that he was my husband forever and ever, that I— Oh, you see I love him still!”
“I should be ashamed of you if you didn’t!” said John Mowbray, sternly. “But you love me, too! You know you do!”
“How can I love two men at once?” cried Fanny.
“You don’t. One of us is an angel in heaven. I shall never have the least jealousy of your affection for him. You and I are on the earth. And when we are as the angels in heaven we shall never marry or be given in marriage. Come, you need the air. Where is your thick cloak, your furs, a hood? Here is the sleigh at the gate. We will drive up the river. On the way we will stop at the rectory——”
“Not a but about it. I shall have the right then to shield my wife in her dreams and from her dreams. And I don’t believe anyone will come where I am to challenge him!” And Fanny Gilbert had found again the power that surrounded her like a fortress and the will that was perhaps as strong as Captain Gilbert’s will.
It seemed that John Mowbray must have been right. After the sleigh ride and the brief ceremony at the rector’s he took his wife away and into a round of gaieties that gave her no time to reflect. And then came the voyage overseas and the travel that should so fill thought and memory as to leave no room for the past. Under all the novelty and pleasure and excitement, and Mr. Mowbray’s constant presence and care, she became a new creature. Blooming with fresh being, enlarged to the larger life, her prettiness became beauty, her liveliness sparkling, and her sweetness, to John Mowbray, enchanting. His pride in her was equal to his passion. It was with pleasure that he saw men’s eyes follow her, and women’s, too. When she rode, her trim grace and dauntless spirit hung afterward before his own eyes, as if he had seen Dian and her train pass by. At the opera, as she stood a moment, easy, gracious, dropping off her cloak and revealing a dazzle of jewels and gleaming tissues, of eyes like jewels, too, of roses, cream and blush, and of smiles, and when he saw her breathless, rapt in the music and the play, he felt a joy of possession that was like a pain; but with the emotion came a vague fear of its evanescence.
The premonition was not felt at once, however. There was a season of unassailed rapture before he noticed that Mrs. Mowbray had become very restless, seeking perpetually some new object, and so absent-minded that he sometimes spoke twice or thrice before she heard him. Glowing with color and life and happiness in the evening, in the morning she would be as pale and sad and languid as if she had danced all night with witches, so that he wondered if she slept at all. She ate almost nothing, started at every sound, laughed nervously at nothing, and her eyes filled with tears likewise at nothing. She began to grow very thin. Suddenly he perceived that she was wasting away before his eyes.
Like Asa of old, Mr. Mowbray had recourse to the physicians, and that without loss of time. But as she persisted that nothing ailed her, and had no symptoms to present other than those they saw, they could do little beyond administering tonics, which were as idle as spring water.
“My dear one,” he said to her at last, “tell me—what is it? There is something you hide from me. My precious one, my wife, tell me; are you unhappy?”
“Oh, yes, yes, yes!” she cried, lifting her hands passionately. “I am wretched! I am wretched!”
He turned as white as she. “Fanny!” he cried.
“Oh, not the way you think!” she cried. “But, oh! I cannot tell you!”
He sat down beside her and took her in his arms. “Whatever it is, you must tell me,” he said, gently. “You are my one thought in life. I can do nothing to serve you if I am in the dark.”
“It is I!—It is I who am in the dark!” she wept.
“Tell me what you mean, my darling,” he urged her.
“I—I don’t know if I am your darling!” she exclaimed. “I don’t know who I am!”
“Fanny, dearest, I don’t understand. Be reasonable, my little wife, let me know.”
“Am I your wife? or am I his?”
“I don’t know. He comes—he has come every night——”
He clasped her convulsively in his arms. “I live a double life,” she said, moving herself feebly yet resistingly. “All day I am yours. All night I am his!”
“Dear child! dear little one! You are ill. You are letting a dream——”
“It is not like any dream——”
“But, dream or not, it is when all your powers are submerged in sleep, when you are not fully yourself——”
“Oh, but in the daylight——”
“Yes, in the daylight, when you are you, then—then you are only mine!”
“I am afraid—I am afraid,” she sighed. “Every night when I go to sleep—I don’t know what may happen. Some night, some night, he will take me!” And her voice died to a whisper.
“Never!” he cried. “Never, while I am beside you.”
At that moment, as she lay in his arms, they both were possessed by a great shuddering and fear. It was dark all about them, as if it were already night. A wind seemed to fill the room and then to hold its breath, a wind that might have been blowing from nowhere to nowhere, but hanging now still and chill.
“Hold me, hold me fast, John!” she murmured. “He has come for me!” Her arms fell, her head drooped nerveless over his arm.
“Oh, John, I love——”
The lips, wide open, said no more. And in the instant of that last sigh John Mowbray knew, by some other than the sense of sight, that Captain Gilbert, masterful, laughing, debonair, towered like a shaft of sunlight before him.
“You are wronged of nothing,” a voice that had no sound was ringing in his ears. “The bindweed falls that leans upon a straw. You would have made her happy if you might. But you could not conquer the unconquerable will. And I have come for my own!”
“As a destroying force—destroying joy, destroying life!” cried John Mowbray. “And I defy you! For though you carry her beyond your farthest star, she loves me best, and I will follow you!”
“Spirit to spirit, flesh to flesh, John Mowbray. She is mine!”
There was a flutter of the purple-veined eyelids in the face that had fallen from his arm, a tremor of the lips, a long, slow, bubbling sigh. Slipping, slipping from his grasp, a lifeless heap lay on the floor—and by all the avenues through which the viewless thing may reach the soul, John Mowbray saw Captain Gilbert fading into an intenser light, his wife held close beside him. And then, though it was broad noonday, the world was black and still.