The Burning Bride, страница 1
The Burning Bride
by Benjamin Parsons
Copyright 2014 Benjamin Parsons
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Bianca Harvey was so beautiful, and had such a gentle, considerate nature that Silas Doliver could not help falling in love with her. But it did him no good. His character was temperamental, fickle and impulsive, quite unlike hers, and he could not provide the sort of sustained, constant affection that he thought she wanted. Nevertheless she loved him in return, despite, or even because of his engaging giddiness, and they got married. However, as no tale can begin with a happy ending, you may be sure that misery ensued, and disaster followed.
From the start he rather resented her for being so steadfast, and supposed that she must rather resent him too, for being so wayward. He could not help his roving eye, nor his weakness for placing bets, and when the wind changed direction he needs must yearn for unknown climes, and could not bear to stop at home. He had always been the same, and she had always known it— he was not about to reproach himself for his own personality. For her part, she never expected him to; she was patient and accommodating, never reproved him, and did her best to be loving and generous, though he was so often careless of her comfort. But her very kindness shamed him. He took her leniency as a rebuke, her goodness for scolding, and let her know a hundred times that she had no right to judge him, even though she never did.
No doubt it was irritating to be married to such a masterpiece of virtue, but that irritation drove Silas to worse and worse vices. Guilt has a way of making us guiltier, and since he felt he could not live up to his bride’s inferred expectations, he deliberately sunk himself lower, and justified his actions by arguing that it was easy for her to forgive him, because she did not really love him. Whether that was true, he never discovered; but if so, it is a mystery why she put up with it all.
I make Silas sound like an out-and-out monster, but he was only headstrong and selfish. More heinous crimes than his are committed against the institution of marriage every day with impunity, I expect. But the foil of Bianca’s perfections was too much for him; his foibles were magnified by the contrast, and he ended up blaming her because he could not blame himself.
One evening, just before their first anniversary, he came home to their apartment after a silent absence of two days. He saw that she had been crying as she tried to smile and put her arms around his neck. She was earnestly relieved to find him safe and sound, and asked mildly what had happened to him? Now, if she had ranted like a termagant and thrown him down the stairs, he may have liked it better; but he was certainly ill suited to such resigned generosity. He flew into the rage that she lacked, pushed her off and told her to mind her own business— how dare she question him? He was his own master, not beholden to her— he wasn’t about to sit under her thumb for the rest of his life, not he! And he repeated these sentiments two or three times at increasing volumes before striding out with the threat that he was never coming back, and slammed the door.
Temper, temper, Silas, you might say; and if you do, you will be interested to hear that he lived to regret it. That night, during his absence, the old building caught fire and burned like a stack of tinder, while Bianca was trapped inside the apartment. When the blaze was finally subdued there was hardly anything left to salvage, and Silas’s beautiful, gentle and considerate Mrs. Doliver was lost to ashes.
The furious whim that drove him to leave that night also drove him to take up an invitation from some friends to join them on a short trip abroad (for which read, a bender), so it happened that he was not in the country when the news reached him of his wife’s death. I cannot tell you how he bore it; he could hardly tell himself. He did not return to the scene, attend the service or meet the family to mourn. No, he took to the bottle directly to stupefy the grief, shunned his friends, sought out new ones in desperation, fled from place to place, forced himself with lust, gambled with his money and his health, and laughed long and loud into the night, every night— long and loud and bitterly.
Now then, you should know that Silas and Bianca first met because they had a godmother in common. Emma Prothero was widowed young, and had no children of her own, so she was pleased to act as godparent when she was asked; and she was often asked, because she happened to be kind, good-humoured and extremely rich. Wealth, and doubtless her finer qualities too, made her the first choice among religious new parents, and even converted some atheistic couples who hoped she would take a shine to their offspring. Mrs. Prothero chuckled wryly at these ambitions, but wholeheartedly embraced her responsibilities whenever she consented to undertake them, and welcomed every one of her godchildren into her heart with sincere warmth.
As for the children, they adored her in turn, because their godmother meant gifts, indulgence and holiday. She owned a very large house— really a manor— deep in the countryside, and often invited assorted godsiblings to visit during the summer to run, jump and play out of doors in her extensive parklands as much as they pleased; and when they grew older, and began to join her in lively conversation, they learned to admire her wit, wisdom and ready mirth as well as her real-estate.
Silas and Bianca met as teenagers beneath Mrs. Prothero’s roof, and that lady acted the parts of chaperone and confidante to them both as their relationship matured into love. However, Mrs. Prothero was always more hopeful than expectant that the match would be a successful one. Bianca’s death was as saddening a blow to her godmother as to any nearer relation, but that thoughtful lady stood alone in refusing to form an opinion of Silas’s conduct. Most were quick to blame him, if not as a groom then certainly as a widower, but Mrs. Prothero was more careful. ‘He was always the same,’ she said, ‘rash today and remorseful tomorrow.’
Her home was very rural, as I say, and consequently very beautiful. Sloping downs stretched wide from her front windows and gave a fine prospect of a broad river valley, all her own property. Thick woodland flanked the house on either side, while behind it, starker hills rose into tracts of barren heath, home to none but sheep and solitary birds of prey. One morning in early spring, about a year after Bianca died and Silas departed, the spry lady stepped out onto the dewy sward before her threshold to watch the mist settle into the valley, and lose herself in musing. At such moments she wished she was inclined to be poetical, that she might do justice to the soft melancholy of the scene; but she was satisfied enough to find lively poetry in people, their relationships and opinions, and so could not altogether repine. Absorbed in reflections, she hardly noticed how long she had stood gazing, until the chilly nip of residual winter made her shiver, and start back indoors to the fire. On entering the parlour, however, she started again, to find her chair unexpectedly occupied by a young man with his hands stretched out to the blaze.
‘Silas! Is that you?’ She pressed at her heart. ‘Goodness me! Where did you spring from?’
He stood up, and she involuntarily stepped back.
The year of his bereavement had marked his face deeply in passing. He was haggard, wary, heavy-eyed— quite unlike the man he had been. She had seen him in all sorts of states before, in his wildest days, but now his expression showed more fundamental wear than a mere hangover would produce— gaunt, as though he had been hollowed out from the inside.
‘I came in through the kitchen,’ he said. ‘Nobody uses the front door, except you.’
‘But I didn’t hear you drive up.’
‘I walked from the station.’
‘What! That’s four miles— why didn’t you call ahead?’
‘I wanted the walk.’
‘Well, well— give me a kiss then.’
He put his arms around her neck, and hung there for a long while. She stroked his hair as if he were still a ch
‘I need a drink,’ she said at last. ‘You gave me such a fright! I hardly recognised you, Silas, you’re so thin and drawn. I expect you’ll have one too?’
He shook his head. ‘I don’t touch it anymore.’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘Are you really Silas Doliver? Or some changeling?’
‘Very funny. But don’t forget it was you who taught me how to drink, Mrs. P.’
‘Yes, and I also taught you how to stop, but you took rather longer to learn that lesson. Anyway, it’s nearly lunchtime, so you won’t mind if I’m not so fastidious.’ She went to a nearby cabinet and poured herself a generous glass of red wine. ‘Now then, sit down and talk to me.’
‘What is there to say?’ he sighed. ‘I may as well be a changeling, I hardly know myself any more. My old friends like the beloved drink haven’t done me any favours of late— I’ve had to give them up. Who would have