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HOME > Short Stories > Ten Degrees Backward > CHAPTER VIII LOVE AMONG THE RUINS
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Fay recovered rapidly, to the surprise of the doctors and the nurses, but not to mine. After that ineffable moment by what seemed to be her dying bed, I had no further anxiety about her health. I knew she was going to be better and stronger than she had ever been before.

But though I felt no anxiety on that account, I was considerably worried on another. I could not fail to see that the fact that I had been used as God\'s instrument in restoring my darling to health had greatly exaggerated my importance in her eyes. Although I tried my utmost to convince her that it was all God\'s doing and not mine in the least, I could not quell the uprush of undeserved gratitude to me which filled her dear heart. Also, perhaps, the appeal of her weakness loosened the armour of reserve which I had once buckled on so tightly, and, strive as I might, I could no longer keep my love for her out of my eyes and voice. It would work through, in spite of all my efforts to suppress it.

I knew by now that Fay loved me: I knew that she knew that I loved her. Then what was I to do?

I could never be grateful enough to God that He had used me as His instrument in bringing my Beloved back to life and health, but of what avail would that restored life be to her if I marred it by allowing her to mate the fulness of her youth with crabbed age? Should I, who had been granted, under God, the inestimable blessing of saving her life, be the one to spoil it for her? Was it for me to mar what I had been permitted to make: to destroy what I had been allowed to restore?

Yet how I loved her! Only God and my own soul knew how I loved her! Surely no young man, however worthier of her he might be in every other respect, could ever love her as much as I did.

In my perplexity I consulted Arthur. The advice of my parish priest—or, as the Prayer Book puts it, of any discreet and learned minister—ought to be of help to me in a perplexity such as this. Being a clergyman, Arthur would know so much more about human nature than I knew; for then—as always—I had no confidence in my own judgment.

I put the case to Blathwayte as tersely as I could, begging him not to allow his friendship for me to lure him into setting my happiness before my duty.

"I am not thinking about your happiness," he replied in his blunt way, "I\'m thinking about Fay\'s."

"That is all I try to think about," I said, "and that is why I have appealed to you. But I see, old man, you agree with me that I have no right to set my happiness before hers by asking her to marry me and link her young life with mine."

"I certainly don\'t think you have any right to sacrifice Fay\'s happiness to your own."

"Then that settles it," I said.

"Or to a false idea of what your conscience conceives to be your duty," he went on, as if I had not spoken.

This gave me pause. "How do you mean?" I asked.

"I mean that if you love Fay, as I know you do, and if she loves you, as I believe she does, you have no right to throw away this good and perfect gift for the sake of some home-made scruple of yours. I mean that you are not justified in spoiling Fay\'s life, even for the pleasure of spoiling your own at the same time.

"Then what should you advise me to do?"

"I should advise you to tell Fay that you love her and to ask her to marry you, and to abide by her decision whatever it is."

"But she is so young," I pleaded—against my own cause.

"If she is old enough to receive the gift of a good man\'s love, she is old enough to know she has received it, and to thank Heaven fasting for it."

"But I am so old—compared with her."

"That is her business—at least, so it seems to me," replied Blathwayte. "If she thinks you are too old, she can refuse you. It is a thing that has been done. But I do think that she is old enough to choose for herself, and not to have things settled for her as if she were a child or an imbecile. She has plenty of common sense."

"But I doubt if she is old enough and experienced enough to choose in a thing like this. It would break my heart if she chose wrongly and regretted it afterwards."

"Hearts run the risk of getting broken in this work-a-day world, and they had better run that risk than remain wrapped up in cotton wool until they stifle and suffocate. If you\'ll excuse my saying so, Reggie, you are too fond of transferring personal responsibilities. You let Miss Kingsnorth make up your mind for you, and in return you propose to make up Fay\'s. For my part, I think it is best for people to make up their own minds, and to be prepared to take the consequences. It is in acting for oneself and in bearing the consequences of one\'s actions that the education of life consists, also the saving dogma of Free Will."

Thus inspired by Arthur I was tempted to put my scruples on one side and my fate to the test; but even yet I was haunted by doubts as to whether my doing so would be fair to Fay. I gave Arthur\'s counsel the consideration that it deserved: as a clergyman he was, so to speak, a specialist in the diagnosis of right and wrong, and also in all matters connected with the human soul. But—when all was said and done—he was a man and not a woman, and no episcopal laying on of hands can convey the power rightly to discern the workings of the female heart. So I decided that the person to help and advise me was not Blathwayte at all, but Annabel, as she was a woman herself and therefore the best judge as to how a woman would feel. I felt that my sister would necessarily understand Fay far better than either Arthur or I could. So I took Annabel into my confidence.

She listened to me carefully and sympathetically, just as she used to listen to a category of my physical symptoms when I was a little boy, and she feared I had caught some childish complaint.

"I am not surprised," she said, when I had finished; "I was afraid there would be some trouble of this kind after Fay\'s most remarkable recovery and your queer part in it." Annabel was one of the people who would always describe any direct answer to prayer as "remarkable." But "no offence meant," as the servants say. She absolutely believed in the God of Revelation; she stringently urged the imperative duty of prayer; yet when any obvious connection displayed itself between the human request and the Divine Response, she at once relegated the phenomenon to the realm of accidental coincidence, if not to that of hysterical imagination.

"I shouldn\'t describe it exactly as \'trouble,\'" I remonstrated.

"I felt sure you\'d fall in love with her, as you call it after her recovery seemed to be the result of your praying for her. Any man would," continued my sister, just in the same tone as thirty years ago she would have said, "I felt sure you would catch measles after having been exposed to the infection. Any child would." Evidently, now as then, Annabel pitied rather than blamed me. Her blame would be reserved for those who had exposed me to the infection.

"I\'m not asking you why I fell in love with her, Annabel; I shouldn\'t be such an ass as to ask that. If you can tell me the reason why any man falls in love with any woman, you have solved the riddle of the ages. The Sphinx herself could not baffle you."

"The reason is generally looks or money," replied the undaunted Annabel.

"The reason for marriage, perhaps, but not for falling in love. Love is beyond all reason, or it wouldn\'t be love."

"Then what are you asking me? How you can get over it?"

"Good heavens, no!" I cried. "I shall never \'get over it,\' as you say, and I never want to. What I am asking you is, do you think I am justified in asking Fay to marry me?"

"I am very pleased you have consulted me in this way, Reggie, very much pleased indeed. It shows a very proper feeling on your part, and is a fresh proof of your unchanging affection for me, and of your confidence in my judgment. As I have told you, I have seen this coming on ever since Fay took that remarkable turn for the better, and I have tried to face it in the proper spirit."

"And so you will," I exclaimed. "I have never known anything happen that you haven\'t faced in the proper spirit."

Annabel looked pleased. "Of course, Reggie, I cannot deny that it is a bit of a shock to me—especially after all these years; but on the other hand papa always wished you to marry, and it does seem a pity for the title to die out. I try to look at the matter from all sides."

"Yes, yes," I said impatiently, getting up from my seat and walking about the great hall, where we had been sitting in the firelight after tea. "But what we are discussing now is not whether I am justified in marrying at all, but whether I am justified in marrying Fay."

Annabel shook her head. "That is what I am not sure about. I wish to look at the question dispassionately, but I very much doubt if you are."

My heart fell fathoms deep; yet I felt how wise I had been to consult Annabel before speaking to Fay. Arthur, looking at the matter from the man\'s point of view, did not see the injustice of tying a young woman to an old man; but Annabel, looking at it from the woman\'s standpoint, evidently did.

"She is so young," I said.

"And so inexperienced," my sister added.

"That is what I feel. She has seen no society of her own class, except Blathwayte and ourselves."

"Exactly, Reggie, and nothing but good society teaches a girl savoir faire. Of course, even a girl as young as Fay who had seen more of the world would be different; but she came here straight out of the schoolroom."

How well Annabel understood, I thought to myself, and how exactly she looked at the matter from my point of view! She really was a wonderful woman. "Then you think even at her age—if she had seen more of the world and had had more experience of life—I might have asked her to marry me without making a mistake which would spoil both our lives?"

"I do indeed, Reggie. But as it is she is so very ignorant and unsophisticated."

There was a pause, which I filled up by spoiling my right boot through poking the fire with it. Then Annabel said, apparently à propos of nothing: "Fay hasn\'t any money—at least, not any to speak of."

How well my sister read my thoughts, I said to myself. It was Fay\'s lack of wealth—if she did not marry me—that weighed on my mind. Wildacre had left his children about eight hundred a year apiece, but that was not enough to keep my darling as she ought to be kept. Still I admit I was surprised that this should have occurred to Annabel.

"But anyhow you have enough," she went on. "Papa left an adequate fortune to endow a baronetage."

I admitted he did, though I could not see what on earth that had to do with the question. "Still, I couldn\'t share it with Fay unless she were my wife," I added.

Annabel looked puzzled. "Of course not. Whoever suggested such a thing?"

"I thought you did."

"Good gracious, no! such an absurd idea never entered my head. I was only thinking about your marrying Fay."

"I spoke to Arthur on the matter, as he is Fay\'s guardian," I continued, "and also my own parish priest."

"It was quite right to consult him as Fay\'s guardian, but I do not see what being a parish priest, as you call it, has to do with the question. And I must say I very much hope, Reggie, that you did not use that ridiculous expression in speaking to Arthur. He is too much inclined to Romanism as it is, and expressions like that are apt to give him false and popish notions of his own importance."

"And he said," I went on, "that I ought to tell Fay that I love her, and to let the decision of accepting or refusing me lie with her."

"What ridiculous advice! Of course she would accept you at once."

Again I was grateful to Annabel for seeing my darling as I saw her. She evidently realised, as I did, that Fay was far too unselfish to consider her own happiness in comparison with mine. If Fay knew I loved her, she would accept me, whatever the sacrifice to herself.

"Then you think Arthur was wrong?" I asked.

"Absolutely. He nearly always is when he acts or speaks on his own judgment, though in other respects he is a most excellent man, and one for whom I have the greatest regard. But he is like you, Reggie, in requiring some one at his elbow to give him good advice, though I do not think he is always as ready as you are to follow it."

My heart felt like lead. "And you think I am not justified in asking a girl of eighteen to marry me?"

"Certainly not. How can there be any real and satisfactory companionship between a girl of that age and a man of yours!"

I made one final appeal for happiness. "Not even if they love each other very much?"

"I don\'t see what that has to do with it. Parents love their children very much, but that doesn\'t prevent them from looking at things from the different points of view of their different generations. And it is natural that they should. I am sure I loved papa very much, but we did not see eye to eye in heaps of things, because the ideas of his generation were quite different from the ideas of ours. He was very narrow in some things. But differences which are quite allowable between parents and children seem to me to be unnatural between a husband and wife, and even more aggravating."

"Then that finally settles the matter," I said, walking out of the hall to the library, for fear that even the subdued glow of the firelight should reveal the misery that I knew must be written on my face. Arthur had opened the door of hope to me just a little; but Annabel had firmly shut it again, and naturally I was more influenced by Annabel than by Arthur—especially as her opinion coincided with my own.

But the matter was not finally closed after all.

After two bitter-sweet days—days when the happiness of my short visits to Fay was clouded by the iron self-restraint I was forced to exercise in her dear presence, and when love and duty waged their mortal combat in my soul—Annabel came to me as I was smoking in the library. She had just returned from the Rectory, and I noticed that the wintry wind must have caught her eyes, they looked so red and swollen. There certainly was a bitter wind that day.

"I have been talking to Arthur," she abruptly began, standing in front of the table and resting her two hands upon it, "and I have come to the conclusion that he was right and I was wrong."

I was surprised. It was so very unlike Annabel to own that she had been wrong about anything, I feared she must be ill.

"But it really was not altogether my fault," she continued; "it really was yours in not making things plainer to me."

I felt relieved: there was evidently nothing serious the matter with my sister. It was absolutely normal for things to be my fault and not hers. Annabel was herself again.

"What things didn\'t I make plain?" I asked.

"You didn\'t make it plain to me how much your feelings were involved in this sort of affair with Fay Wildacre."

"But, my dear girl, I told you that I wanted to marry Fay, and what better proof could I have given you of the depth of my feelings for her?"

"Oh yes, you said you wanted to marry her, but I didn\'t understand that you cared for her as much as Arthur says you do," persisted Annabel, as if asking for a woman\'s hand in marriage was merely a sign of transitory admiration, such as asking for her hand in a dance. "Of course, that makes all the difference."

"All what difference?" I asked in bewilderment. "I am no orator as Blathwayte is, and therefore I cannot express my feelings as he seems able to express them; but I wish you to be under no delusion as to the state of my feelings towards Fay. To me she is and always will be the only woman I could possibly marry—the only woman with whom I could ever fall in love. I love her to the very depths of my being and always shall, and it is because I love her so much that I refuse to take my happiness at the expense of hers, and to tie her for life to a man old enough to be her father. There now, you have it. If I wasn\'t clear enough before, surely I am now."

"That\'s you all over, Reggie, always ready to sacrifice yourself to other people! I never knew anybody as absolutely unselfish as you are—except, of course, mamma."

I was astonished, and showed it. "But you agreed with me, Annabel. You said it wouldn\'t be fair to Fay to ask her to marry me."

It was now Annabel\'s turn to look surprised. "What nonsens............
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