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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Deliverance

By Margaret Oliphant (1828–1897)

  • From ‘The Ladies Lindores’
  • [The Lindores are a simple family, of good birth and breeding, who for years have wandered happily over the Continent, living in cheap places on a meagre income, and making friends with everybody. Unexpectedly inheriting the title, and finding the estates insufficient, Lord Lindores determines that his pretty daughters must marry fortunes. The elder, Lady Caroline, is sacrificed to the richest man in the county, a coarse, purse-proud, vain, and brutal ignoramus, whom she abhors, and who grows daily more and more detestable. Suddenly he is killed by an accident, induced by his own evil temper and bravado.]

  • CARRY, upon the other side of the great house, had retired to her room in the weariness that followed her effort to look cheerful and do the honors of her table. She had made that effort very bravely; and though it did not even conceal from Millefleurs the position of affairs, still less deceive her own family, yet at least it kept up the appearance of decorum necessary, and made it easier for the guests to go through their part…. She lay on a sofa very quiet in the stillness of exhaustion, not doing anything, not saying anything, looking wistfully at the blue sky that was visible through the window with the soft foliage of some birch-trees waving lightly over it—and trying not to think. Indeed, she was so weary that it was scarcely necessary to try. And what was there to think about? Nothing could be done to deliver her—nothing that she was aware of even to mend her position. She was grateful to God that she was to be spared the still greater misery of seeing Beaufort, but that was all. Even heaven itself seemed to have no help for Carry. If she could have been made by some force of unknown agency to love her husband, she would still have been an unhappy wife; but it is to be feared, poor soul, that things had come to this pass with her, that she did not even wish to love her husband, and felt it less degrading to live with him under compulsion, than to be brought down to the level of his coarser nature, and take pleasure in the chains she wore. Her heart revolted at him more and more. In such a terrible case, what help was there for her in earth or heaven? Even had he been reformed,—had he been made a better man,—Carry would not have loved him: she shrank from the very suggestion that she might some time do so. There was no help for her; her position could not be bettered anyhow. She knew this so well, that all struggle except the involuntary struggle in her mind, which never could intermit, against many of the odious details of the life she had to lead, had died out of her. She had given in to the utter hopelessness of her situation. Despair is sometimes an opiate, as it is sometimes a frantic and maddening poison. There was nothing to be done for her,—no use in wearying Heaven with prayers, as some of us do. Nothing could make her better. She had given in utterly, body and soul, and this was all that was to be said. She lay there in this stillness of despair, feeling more crushed and helpless than usual after the emotions of the morning, but not otherwise disturbed; lying like a man who has been shattered by an accident, but lulled by some anodyne draught,—still, and almost motionless, letting every sensation be hushed so long as nature would permit, her hands folded, her very soul hushed and still. She took no note of time in the exhaustion of her being. She knew that when her husband returned she would be sent for, and would have to re-enter the other world of eternal strife and pain; but here she was retired, as in her chapel, in herself—the sole effectual refuge which she had left.

    The house was very well organized, very silent and orderly in general; so that it surprised Lady Caroline a little, in the depth of her quiet, to hear a distant noise as of many voices, distinct though not loud—a confusion and far-away babel of outcries and exclamations. Nothing could be more unusual; but she felt no immediate alarm, thinking that the absence of her husband and her own withdrawal had probably permitted a little outbreak of gayety or gossip down-stairs, with which she did not wish to interfere. She lay still accordingly, listening vaguely, without taking much interest in the matter. Certainly something out of the way must have happened. The sounds had sprung up all at once,—a hum of many excited voices, with sharp cries as of dismay and wailing breaking in.

    At last her attention was attracted. “There has been some accident,” she said to herself, sitting upright upon her sofa. As she did this she heard steps approaching her door. They came with a rush, hurrying along, the feet of at least two women, with a heavier step behind them; then paused suddenly, and there ensued a whispering and consultation close to her door. Carry was a mother, and her first thought was of her children. “They are afraid to tell me,” was the thought that passed through her mind. She rose and rushed to the door, throwing it open. “What is it? Something has happened,” she said,—“something you are afraid to tell me. Oh, speak, speak!—the children—”

    “My leddy, it’s none of the children. The children are as well as could be wished, poor dears,” said her own maid, who had been suddenly revealed, standing very close to the door. The woman, her cheeks blazing with some sudden shock, eager to speak, yet terrified, stopped there with a gasp. The housekeeper, who was behind her, pushed her a little forward, supporting her with a hand on her waist, whispering confused but audible exhortations. “Oh, take heart—oh, take heart. She must be told. The Lord will give you strength,” this woman said. The butler stood solemnly behind, with a very anxious, serious countenance.

    To Carry, all this scene became confused by wild anxiety and terror. “What is it?” she said; “my mother? some one at home?” She stretched out her hands vaguely towards the messengers of evil, feeling like a victim at the block, upon whose neck the executioner’s knife is about to fall.

    “O my leddy! far worse! far worse!” the woman cried.

    Carry, in the dreadful whirl of her feelings, still paused bewildered, to ask herself what could be worse? And then there came upon her a moment of blindness, when she saw nothing, and the walls and the roof seemed to burst asunder, and whirl and whirl. She dropped upon her knees in this awful blank and blackness unawares; and then the haze dispelled, and she saw, coming out of the mist, a circle of horror-stricken pale faces, forming a sort of ring round her. She could do nothing but gasp out her husband’s name—“Mr. Torrance?” with quivering lips.

    “O my lady, my lady! To see her on her knees, and us bringin’ her such awfu’ news! But the Lord will comfort ye,” cried the housekeeper, forgetting the veneration due to her mistress, and raising her in her arms. The two women supported her into her room, and she sat down again upon the sofa where she had been sitting—sitting, was it a year ago?—in the quiet, thinking that no change would ever come to her; that nothing, nothing could alter her condition; that all was over and finished for her life.

    And it is to be supposed that they told poor Carry exactly the truth. She never knew. When she begged them to leave her alone till her mother came, whom they had sent for, she had no distinct knowledge of how it was, or what had happened; but she knew that had happened. She fell upon her knees before her bed, and buried her head in her hands, shutting out the light. Then she seized hold of herself with both her hands to keep herself (as she felt) from floating away upon that flood of new life which came swelling up all in a moment, swelling into every vein—filling high the fountain of existence which had been so feeble and so low. Oh, shut out—shut out the light, that nobody might see! close the doors and the shutters in the house of death, and every cranny, that no human eye might descry it! After a while she dropped lower, from the bed which supported her, to the floor, prostrating herself with more than Oriental humbleness. Her heart beat wildly, and in her brain there seemed to wake a hundred questions clanging like bells in her ears, filling the silence with sound. Her whole being, that had been crushed, sprang up like a flower from under a passing foot. Was it possible?—was it possible? She pulled herself down; tried by throwing herself upon her face on the carpet, prostrating herself body and soul, to struggle against that secret, voiceless, mad exultation that came upon her against her will. Was he dead?—was he dead? struck down in the middle of his days, that man of iron? Oh, the pity of it!—oh, the horror of it! She tried to force herself to feel this—to keep down, down, that climbing joy in her. God in heaven, was it possible? she who thought nothing could happen to her more….

    A fire had been lighted by the anxious servants,—who saw her shiver in the nervous excitement of this great and terrible event,—and blazed brightly, throwing ruddy gleams of light through the room, and wavering ghostly shadows upon the wall. The great bed, with its tall canopies and heavy ornaments, shrouded round with satin curtains, looped and festooned with tarnished gold lace and every kind of clumsy grandeur, stood like a sort of catafalque, the object of a thousand airy assaults and attacks from the fantastic light, but always dark,—a funereal object in the midst; while the tall polished wardrobes all round the room gave back reflections like dim mirrors, showing nothing but the light. Two groups of candles on the high mantelpiece, twinkling against the dark wall, were the only other illuminations. Carry sat sunk in a big chair close to the fire. If she could have cried, if she could have talked and lamented, if she could have gone to bed, or failing this, if she had read her Bible,—the maids in the house, who hung about the doors in anxiety and curiosity, would have felt consoled for her. But she did none of these. She only sat there, her slight figure lost in the depths of the chair, still in the white dress which she had worn to receive her guests in the morning. She had not stirred—the women said, gathering round Lady Lindores in whispering eagerness—for hours, and had not even touched the cup of tea they had carried to her. “O my lady, do something to make her cry,” the women said. “If she doesn’t get it out it’ll break her heart.” They had forgotten, with the facile emotion which death, and especially a death so sudden, calls forth, that the master had been anything but the most devoted of husbands, or his wife other than the lovingest of wives. This pious superstition is always ready to smooth away the horror of deaths which are a grief to no one. “Your man’s your man when a’s done, even if he’s but an ill ane,” was the sentiment of the awe-stricken household. “Ye never ken what he’s been to ye till ye lose him.” It gave them all a sense of elevation that Lady Caroline should, as they thought, be wrapped in hopeless grief,—it made them think better of her and of themselves. The two ladies went into the ghostly room with something of the same feeling.

    Lady Lindores felt that she understood it,—that she had expected it. Had not her own mind been filled by sudden compunction,—the thought that perhaps she had been less tolerant of the dead man than she ought; and how much more must Carry, poor Carry, have felt the awe and pang of an almost remorse to think that he was gone, without a word, against whom her heart had risen in such rebellion, yet who was of all men the most closely involved in her very being? Lady Lindores comprehended it all; and yet it was a relief to her mind that Carry felt it so, and could thus wear the garb of mourning with reality and truth. She went in with her heart full, with tears in her eyes, the profoundest tender pity for the dead, the deepest sympathy with her child in sorrow. The room was very large, very still, very dark, save for that ruddy twilight, the two little groups of pale lights glimmering high up upon the wall, and no sign of any human presence.

    “Carry, my darling!” her mother said, wondering and dismayed. Then there was a faint sound, and Carry rose, tall, slim, and white, like a ghost out of the gloom. She had been sitting there for hours, lost in thoughts, in dreams and visions. She seemed to herself to have so exhausted this event by thinking of it, that it was now years away. She stepped forward and met her mother, tenderly indeed, but with no effusion. “Have you come all the way so late to be with me, mother? How kind, how kind you are! And Edith too—”

    “Kind!” cried Lady Lindores, with an almost angry bewilderment. “Did you not know I would come, Carry, my poor child? But you are stunned with “this blow—”

    “I suppose I was at first. Yes, I knew you would come—at first; but it seems so long since. Sit down, mother. You are cold. You have had such a miserable drive. Come near to the fire—”

    “Carry, Carry dear, never mind us: it is you we are all thinking of. You must not sit there and drive yourself distracted thinking.”

    “Let me take off this shawl from your cap, mamma. Now you look more comfortable. Have you brought your things to stay? I am ringing to have fires lit in your rooms. Oh yes, I want you to stay. I have never been able to endure this house, you know, and those large rooms, and the desert feeling in it. And you will have some tea or something. I must give orders—”

    “Carry,” cried her mother, arresting her hand on the bell, “Edith and I will see to all that. Don’t pay any attention to us. I have come to take care of you, my dearest. Carry, dear, your nerves are all shattered. How could it be otherwise? You must let me get you something,—they say you have taken nothing,—and you must go to bed.”

    “I don’t think my nerves are shattered. I am quite well. There is nothing the matter with me. You forget,” she said, with something like a faint laugh, “how often we have said, mamma, how absurd to send and ask after a woman’s health when there is nothing the matter with her, when only she has lost—” Here she paused a little; and then said gravely, “Even grief does not affect the health.”

    “Very often it does not, dear; but Carry, you must not forget that you have had a terrible shock. Even I, who am not so nearly involved—even I—” Here Lady Lindores, in her excitement and agitation, lost her voice altogether, and sobbed, unable to command herself. “Oh, poor fellow! poor fellow!” she said with broken tones. “In a moment, Carry, without warning.”

    Carry went to her mother’s side, and drew her head upon her breast. She was perfectly composed, without a tear. “I have thought of all that,” she said: “I cannot think it matters. If God is the Father of us all, we are the same to him, dead or living. What can it matter to him that we should make preparations to appear before him? Oh, all that must be folly, mother. However bad I had been, should I have to prepare to go to you?”

    “Carry, Carry, my darling! It is I that should be saying this to you. You are putting too much force upon yourself: it is unnatural; it will be all the more terrible for you after.”

    Carry stood stooping over her mother, holding Lady Lindores’s head against her bosom. She smiled faintly, and shook her head. “Has it not been unnatural altogether?” she said….

    “The children—poor children! have you seen them, Carry? do they know?” said Lady Lindores, drying the tears—the only tears that had been shed for Torrance—from her cheeks.

    Carry did not make any reply. She went away to the other end of the room, and took up a white shawl in which she wrapped herself. “The only thing I feel is cold,” she said.

    “Ah, my love, that is the commonest feeling. I have felt sometimes as if I could just drag myself to the fire like a wounded animal and care for nothing more.”

    “But, mother, you were never in any such terrible trouble.”

    “Not like this—but I have lost children,” said Lady Lindores. She had to pause again, her lip quivering. “To be only sorrow, there is no sorrow like that.”

    She had risen, and they stood together, the fantastic firelight throwing long shadows of them all over the dim and ghastly room. Suddenly Carry flung herself into her mother’s arms. “O my innocent mother!” she cried. “O mother! you only know such troubles as angels may have. Look at me! look at me! I am like a mad woman. I am keeping myself in, as you say, that I may not go mad—with joy!”

    Lady Lindores gave a low terrible cry, and held her daughter in her arm, pressing her desperately to her heart as if to silence her. “No, Carry—no, no,” she cried.

    “It is true. To think I shall never be subject to all that any more—that he can never come in here again—that I am free—that I can be alone. O mother, how can you tell what it is? Never to be alone; never to have a corner in the world where—some one else has not a right to come, a better right than yourself. I don’t know how I have borne it. I don’t know how I can have lived, disgusted, loathing myself. No, no: some time else I shall be sorry when I have time to think, when I can forget what it is that has happened to me—but in the mean time I am too happy—too—”

    Lady Lindores put her hand upon her daughter’s mouth. “No, no, Carry—no, no: I cannot bear it—you must not say it,” she cried.

    Carry took her mother’s hands and kissed them, and then began to sob—the tears pouring from her eyes like rain. “I will not say anything,” she cried; “no, no—nothing, mother. I had to tell you to relieve my heart. I have been able to think of nothing else all these hours. I have never had so many hours to myself for years. It is so sweet to sit still and know that no one will burst the door open and come in. Here I can be sacred to myself, and sit and think; and all quiet—all quiet about me.”

    Carry looked up, clasping her hands, with the tears dropping now and then, but a smile quivering upon her mouth and in her eyes. She seemed to have reached that height of passionate emotion—the edge where expression at its highest almost loses itself, and a blank of all meaning seems the next possibility. In her white dress, with her upturned face and the wild gleam of rapture in her eyes, she was like an unearthly creature. But to describe Lady Lindores’s anguish and terror and pain would be impossible. She thought her daughter was distraught. Never in her life had she come in contact with feeling so absolute, subdued by no sense of natural fitness, or even by right and wrong…. And the truth was that her own heart, though so panic-stricken and penetrated with so much pity for the dead, understood too, with a guilty throb, the overwhelming sense of emancipation which drove everything else from Carry’s mind. She had feared it would be so. She would not allow herself to think so; but all through the darkness of the night as she drove along, she had been trembling lest she should find Carry not heart-broken but happy, yet had trusted that pity somehow would keep her in the atmosphere of gloom which ought to surround a new-made widow. It hurt Lady Lindores’s tender heart that a woman should be glad when her husband died, however unworthy that husband might have been. She did her best now to soothe the excited creature, who took her excitement for happiness.

    “We will talk of this no more to-night, Carry: by-and-by you will see how pitiful it all is. You will feel—as I feel. But in the mean time you are worn out. This terrible shock, even though you may think you do not feel it, has thrown you into a fever. You must let me put you to bed.”

    “Not here,” she said with a shudder, looking round the room; “not here—I could not rest here.”

    “That is natural,” Lady Lindores said with a sigh. “You must come with me, Carry.”

    “Home, mother—home! Oh, if I could!—not even to Lindores: to one of the old, poor places where we were so happy—”

    “When we had no home,” the mother said, shaking her head. But she too got a wistful look in her eyes at the recollection.

    Those days when they were poor, wandering, of no account; when it mattered little to any one but themselves where they went, what the children might do, what alliances they made,—what halcyon days those were to look back on! In those days this miserable union, which had ended so miserably, could never have been made. Was it worth while to have had so many additional possessions added to them—rank and apparent elevation—for such a result? But she could not permit herself to think, with Carry sitting by, too ready to relapse into those feverish musings which were so terrible. She put her arm round her child and drew her tenderly away. They left the room with the lights against the wall, and the firelight giving it a faux air of warmth and inhabitation. Its emptiness was scarcely less tragic, scarcely less significant, than the chill of the other great room—the state chamber—in the other wing; where, with lights burning solemnly about him all night, the master of the house lay dead, unwatched by either love or sorrow. There were gloom and panic, and the shock of a great catastrophe, in the house. There were even honest regrets; for he had not been a bad master, though often a rough one: but nothing more tender. And Carry lay down with her mother’s arms round her and slept, and woke in the night and asked herself what it was; then lay still in a solemn happiness,—exhausted, peaceful,—feeling as if she desired nothing more. She was delivered: as she lay silent, hidden in the darkness and peace of the night, she went over and over this one certainty, so terrible yet so sweet. “God forgive me! God forgive me!” she said softly to herself, her very breathing hushed with the sense of relief. She had come out of death into life. Was it wrong to be glad? That it was a shame and outrage upon nature was no fault of poor Carry. Sweet tears rolled into her eyes; her jarred and thwarted being came back into harmony. She lay and counted the dark silent hours striking one by one, feeling herself all wrapped in peace and ease, as if she lay in some sacred shrine. To-morrow would bring back the veils and shrouds of outside life; the need of concealment, of self-restraint, almost of hypocrisy; the strain and pain of a new existence to be begun: but to-night—this one blessed night of deliverance—was her own.