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Everything is Possible to Will

Chapter VI. A Cloud as big as a Man's Hand

page 58

Chapter VI. A Cloud as big as a Man's Hand.

Having gone thus far with Zee, does the reader demand that she shall continue to skip merrily down-hill, carolling bird-fashion, until her voice is lost in the far distance? Such were a fitting termination to a novel; but such is not life. It is a pity to let the curtain fall on the girl, but there is a dark background to bring into view. Tulle-illusion may be a pretty web for a bride, but it does not wear. Zee had all too soon to don the serge of this work-a-day world.

Professing to have flirted with his wife longer than was business-like, “neglected books” claimed the attention of Wrax, whose office, in which much of his time must necessarily be spent, was, unfortunately, a short distance from the house, which he would leave of an evening ostensibly to “lock himself in his office and write hard.” Demurring to his running away, Zee promised, if he would bring his books home, that her electrical presence should clear his brain and make the pen fly over the page with unwonted celerity. To which Wrax, who was quick in expedients, made so many reasonable objections, that Zee reluctantly conceded the point, and he kissed away her half-smile, half-pout with a cheery “I won't be long,” as he hurried off night after night.

Strangers calling of an evening occasionally, to see Wrax on business, were sent to the office, and on finding it vacant returned to the house with a message, and excusing his absence on receiving the message, Wrax not infrequently said too much; for his wife discovered quite incidentally again and again that he misstated facts. But on hinting at these seeming discrepancies to Wrax, his explanations were so prompt page 59 and feasible that Zee accepted them fully; nor did a shadow of doubt arise in her mind until his hours became irregular, and she observed with pain that— although tolerant of her solicitude, even anticipating it by making it appear he was constantly the victim of vexatious interruptions—he disliked being asked, never so lovingly, “where he had been, or why he had lingered so long?”

“Writing to do” being an insufficient blind, “important business transactions” calling him hither and thither henceforth offered a wide-open door of escape. They dwelt among their own people, whose visiting circle was a wide one, and to Zee the kindly interchange of social amenities was pleasant recreation; but to Wrax, who in thirsting for “life” refused to be debarred more congenial pursuits, private parties were an intolerable infliction, though he bowed to “the claims of society” sufficiently to avoid remark. Or when “business” excused his absence to his wife, he so sedulously avoided saying where he had been that, try as Zee did to lull a suspicion of wrong-doing, she failed to cheat herself into believing that all was right.

Then Zee bethought her of the strange emotion Wrax displayed a few days after their marriage— was the key to its solution in her hand? Had he, as a bachelor, contracted habits, which he believed would be easily overcome with a wife and a home of his own? Was it of these bad habits, which now proved too strong for him, he desired to make a full confession? The traitor-fear of losing Zee would seal his lips before marriage, and in the first flush of a brighter future, how could he dash her newly-acquired trust? She would have been painfully shocked, doubtless, but she would have hoped so much from the mere fact of his owning his weakness, that notwithstanding that her quick sensibilities would have rightly gauged the adventitious circumstances that environ the weakling, and from which she was powerless to shield him, encouraging words girding him round with a sweet magnetism would have inspired him with the manly resolve to shun every path that leads astray, making him at once strong to page 60 resist forbidden pleasures, and insensibly drawing him homewards.

Viewed from a distance, his coveted treasure appeared to have his world at her feet: marriage was to lift him at a bound into a purified region; and having faith in Zee's power to save him from his baser self, he failed to realise that its unattainableness alone gave value to his koh-i-noor 41; faith become fruition, his old craving for excitement, “life”, demanded fresh stimulus.

But having mastered the impulse to confess his sin (all violation of God's laws, moral and physical, is sin), he guarded his secret with a miser's vigilance, congratulating himself possibly that it was safe; and yet from what a life of misery the confession might have saved him! It was one of Wrax's proudest boasts that he “never made admissions on principle.” Pity his “principles” had not made admissions unnecessary; and to effectually combat what might be wrong in his vaunted “principles” much skill and judgment would be called into requisition, since to a man of lax morality unflinching rectitude would look very like tyranny.

Of the evils of excessive drinking in all their ghastliness, Zee was utterly ignorant; she yet knew instinctively that to tamper with their insidious approach must be suicidal to all manliness. She had, too, some faint idea how tame and insipid the quiet enjoyments of home must become to one who loved the giddy hilarity of the commercial room and its “convivial bowl,” for whose sake Wrax's subterfuges became at length so flagrant that as his eyes fell before her penetrating gaze, in anything but a reassuring manner, Zee could hear her heart beat. He was all the world to her henceforth; to him her whole soul was pledged; he must be noble and manly. Tenderly solicitous of his best interests, it was Zee's ambition to help to secure them, to which end she told him what his conduct appeared to her. But telling her she “knew nothing of business to which he must apply himself in good earnest,” he toyed with her “hair-splitting,” adding lightly: “My home is page 61 my castle, and you are my queen. I shall never tire of it or of you. Would you, silly child, pin me to your side, and give me thimble-pie if I attempted to bolt? My Zela would never wish me to neglect business.” No! anything like spooneying42 was distasteful to her, but she had the sense to know that business proper does not, ought not, to occupy the whole of a man's time. Zee was practically more correct than intelligent unfortunately; only by example could she appeal to Wrax's sense of justice—man's noblest attribute; and if himself and his conscience had parted company, her chance of saving him would be small indeed. Moreover, the grace of fitness so completely makes or mars one's actions, that it is possible to err even with purity of motive. She had gained really nothing by her talk with Wrax; by idle banter he had waived the question of right and wrong, but he wound up with: “Well, I won't be a naughty boy again.”

It would never do to arouse suspicion thus early; hence, despite press of business and those everlasting books, Wrax walked and visited with his wife, quite at his ease and willing to be pleased; and resolved to believe the best, Zee showed in many ways how perfect was her trust. Never would she relax her efforts to secure his happiness; would they be reciprocated, appreciated even? It takes two to make married life happy.

Alas! his heart was already truant; vain were Zee's efforts to tie him to home and duty. Very guardedly, with his old eel-like slipperiness, Wrax contrived to steal away to “business.” More painful to Zee than the dread of his becoming too fond of the glass—so low a vice could not be entertained even in thought— was the hardihood with which he prevaricated. Was he deliberately acting and uttering lies, arming himself against his wife in a panoply of lies? Fearful questions to force themselves on the truth-loving, few months' old wife! How could he wish to hide from her, his best friend, how his idle hours were spent? Lie to his wife! if false to all besides, and his fellows brand him coward, he will surely keep his home inviolate, page 62 have one anchor sure and steadfast. Fear, lying, were so alien to Zee, she had no conception that naked truth could present a chilling aspect to a craven soul; truth was just what it wanted to make it strong. She had to learn that the love of drink indulged makes liars and cowards of all, women included.

Wrax was without excuse in seeking stimulants abroad; his cellar had been stocked with wines and spirits by Zee's father, to which Wrax himself added ale, etc.; and Zee failed to see why their moderate use should afford less pleasure in his own home than in the public room. And putting it as a question to him, on whom she scorned to urge abstinence, believing it to be altogether unnecessary, he readily admitted in theory what he denied in practice, viz., that he “ought to shun the company he sought, since it was wholly corrupting.” And on his boon companions Zee, woman-like, vented her impotent wrath, convinced that they exercised despotic sway over him. But no; headstrong to a degree, Wrax stood like a rock in his proud self-will; strong to do the right, choosing to do the wrong.

The first Christmastide was a sad one to Zee. Returning at midnight on Christmas eve, Wrax had to her excited fancy taken too much, and her cheeks crimsoned at the bare thought that his tastes leaned ever so little that way. Then, as always, herself and Wrax joined in the family gathering next day in the old home; and if a portentous cloud rested on her usually high spirits, and a something trembled on the eyelids, she played hide-and-seek with them. No one must guess that all was not right within—that a grimacing mute, waving sable plumes in her face, had already posted himself on the threshold: not that he would be permitted to enter, never! Overtaken in a fault Wrax might have been, but given over to appetites of a degrading tendency, impossible!

Bleak and wintry at best her reflexions must have been, as she surveyed her simple, yet to an appreciative mind, costly wares. Sated of her society, already; his home all that it should be, but it was not enough. The home and herself had become less than nothing, page 63 in truth, to the only being whose appreciation she prized.

And the secret of his indifference lay in the fact that Zee had become his property, his slave, by marriage. Wrax would have been a devoted husband—an immeasurably better and happier man, and Zee a by no means worse woman, had she been free—free as Wrax was free. He would then have respected in her what he valued above all things in himself, the subtle potency of recognised being—the all of dignity comprehended in the words personal liberty; but having become a wife, she was comparatively worthless.

Yes Zee, being that worthless thing a wife, thou art safe; and Wrax kisses his hand to thee, as he goes out into the night, willingly turning his back on thee and heaven; heaven he'll take at a venture, if earth but yield him one long draught of sensual delights. In courting days he never dared lay down the weapons of his warfare, but, as far as Zee was concerned, kept his armour bright perforce; now, glaring meteors lure him on, he knows where to step and when to stop, and of what cup to sip with safety: yes he is wise, and would fain persuade himself that he strolls in “by-path meadow,” that the wisdom of the serpent may extract the greater sweetness from the dove. Ignorance is innocence to thee; he would keep thy soul pure, that he may be the more at liberty to sin—a game too expensive for two to play at. Oh! the strength of a perverted will. The will is the man, and if it be perverted the man is lost until it be restored.

Zee had left no stone unturned which could contribute to the comfort of home—there was nothing more within her reach in that direction; she, nevertheless, redoubled, if that were possible, the effort to make herself personally attractive, and if she failed, what chance, except to be killed by inches, would a tamely good wife have had with such a man as Wrax? Such as she is, Zee is presented in homely guise, that her very naturalness may touch a tender human chord; and if a niche of sympathy be cheerfully accorded her, it is to be hoped she will wear better than do the cooing, flummery-voiced43 women—the very incarnation page 64 of selfishness—who are falsest when they seem most fair.

Viewing the fortuitous circumstances which environed Wrax, he may have been the envy of many a youth who must plod wearily in the teeth of adverse fate; but let him plod courageously on and on, concerned only to know his work well done. It was Wrax's misfortune that he did too well—had much too smooth and easy a course. Prosperity has whelmed44 many a man whom adversity would have nerved to endure nobly. We must, nevertheless, see things as they are. The true man rises superior to every trial and temptation, whereas the moral coward, the man of the deliberately perverted will, is certain, sooner or later, to go to the wall, however felicitously propped up. Unstable as water, because ever hankering after what was beyond his reach, Wrax was better and worse by turns. Now Zee's hopes ran high, now they fell with sickening foreboding; but even at his worst she met him with a welcoming smile and an inspiriting voice, quite too true to have a false ring in it, for the anxious concern she then felt for him was a something vastly better than the whimsical conceit that is white heat to-day and an icicle to-morrow. White heat in the affections soon wears itself out.

After unusual excesses, so degraded did Wrax become in his own esteem that, seeing nothing but his deserts, he literally tore his hair and gnashed his teeth in his bitter self-reproaches. He could not so much as look at his wife even while he clung frantically to her, begging her to “curse him” for what he called his “cruelty to her,” as he called loudly on heaven to witness the sincerity of his repentance and his promises of amendment, blessing his wife no less loudly for having borne “patiently with him.”

To his humiliation not one word of Zee's intentionally added a pang, although she earnestly implored him to “crush the weakness in its bud!.” In its bud! She little knew how long the tempter had him in possession—how long he had hugged his self-imposed chains. With her arms round his neck and her warm breath on his cheek, it were hard to tell whose tears page 65 fell fastest, or which felt weakest, as they knelt together craving pardon for the past and strength for the future. And as the waves of sorrow rolled over his soul, it was so beautiful to see his better nature asserting itself that, abounding in hope, Zee took heart of grace. She was not too immaculate to go with him where he went, although in her anxious care there was much of the pitiful tenderness a mother feels for her poor maimed child. For, oh! when the sinner is your husband, you are in a sense linked with him. in his degradation, and you go backwards to cover him with a mantle all of shame and pain. Still—you cover him.

But Wrax grew impatient of the would-be ministering spirit. Yet how much Zee could have done for him—nay, how much he could have done for himself! All things good and great were possible to him; but, alas! short-lived were his attempts to conquer wayward appetites. Ere Zee could make ready the fatted calf, Wrax was at his old tricks again, and Zee's head hung like a bulrush.

It is strange that Wrax should have desired to enter a family so dead against flagrant immorality as was Zee's. Surely his associates, whose tastes were as his own, must have possessed gay, thoughtless, pleasure-loving, play-going sisters, running greedily to every excess of riot, from whom Wrax might, have chosen a wife. Yes; but his horse-leech passions45 demanded that his wife should save that he might spend. He never tired of preaching economy to her.

In the present instance, as is not unfrequently the-case, the doings of the “graceless scamp” are all too late exposed. And a lady-friend told Zee that, “feeling certain that, if Wrax's habits were known to her he would not continue her accepted suitor,” she bad determined to enlighten her. But his “scandalous proceedings” being a fruitful theme of gossip to a gossipping circle, it was taken for granted that her family must be cognisant thereof; hence the lady's husband peremptorily forbade what he denounced as her “interference.”

And a similar non-intervention policy silenced other lips possibly. So certain, indeed, were Wrax's more page 66 dissolute companions that the courtship would “come to nothing,” knowing Zee's all but puritanic strictness, that bets ran high and at long odds against the marriage, which bets, together with the fact—known to Wrax, but of which Zee was in blissful ignorance— that another and a better man longed, as the phrase is, “to cut him out,” served, perchance, to whet Wrax's ardor in pursuit of Zee.

The marriage consummated, the betting fraternity may have said: “See what your pious ones will wink at to secure a husband for their daughter!” It had been better to have assured themselves that the “pious ones” knew what the man was. Such haunts and habits as Wrax affected were an abomination to Zee's father, brothers, and friends, who were, moreover, incapable of believing deceit to be deliberately practised; hence the ease with which Wrax turned aside the shafts of suspicion. And Zee could but hope that they might never know of the blight resting upon her husband, who looked so black in comparison with them.

Furthermore, prior to marriage Wrax had a sudden severe fti of illness; he was long delirious, raving wildly and fighting with monsters, that were, he declared, crawling over him, over the bed, and filling the room. The doctor called the disease “congestion of the brain.” Zee now believes it to have been delirium tremens.46 Thus every one seemed to conspire to keep her in ignorance of his true state. Late though it was, it afforded Zee a grim satisfaction to know that Wrax's habits were of no recent growth; but for which knowledge she would have added to her galled shoulders the burden of a great fear, that she had disappointed him, however innocently.

41 An Indian diamond famous for its size, history and beauty, which became one of the British Crown jewels in 1849. Later used allusively as a term for any large diamond, or to describe something very precious.

42 A ‘spooney’ is a simple or foolish person. Spooneying refers to the engagement of a person in foolish behaviour, often with romantic connotations.

43 To engage in ‘flummery’ is to flatter, or to give an empty compliment.

44 To overturn or capsize; to turn upside down.

45 ‘Blood-sucking’ passions. Horseleech, in Proverbs 30:16, are mentioned as a generic term for a blood-sucking annelid.

46 A delirium induced by excessive indulgence in alcohol, and characterized by tremblings and various delusions of the senses.