I continued along the course I had taken daily in the spring with Catherine Bellefey. I was lost in thought for some time, strolling along the avenue of brilliant maples and oaks, shuffling through the splendorous profusion of red leaves and chestnuts, and thinking of how I had said too much, or perhaps not enough, to Miss Bellefey to make her break off our engagement.
I approached my favorite bend, which curved toward a crescent-shaped stand of pines.
The grove was like a temple. Whenever I beheld its wise spirits, ancient and looming, the quench was like liquid on my tongue after a long thirst.
I stepped between the portals of the arboreal church and entered its sanctuary. I sat on the bench—the pew—beneath the soft-needled arms that enveloped me, and felt exulted at the beauty; the sentience; the peace; the muted, dimming light that bore a mystic glow. I had not experienced the enfolding calm of this wood since summer.
Miss Bellefey, too, had felt the sacredness of this bower. I recalled how eloquently she had remarked, as her clear, dark, and blue eyes absorbed the vision, that Nature was the first church. “Nature is the minster that the great cathedral masons strove to emulate,” she had said.
And I had wanted to bow to her words.
Now, as I sat alone in our enchanted wood, I longed for her to round the bend; for her elegant figure to appear before me, as it had from spring through summer; for her to gracefully assume the seat at my side; for her to regard me with that candid expression that I had thrived upon; for her to smile and say, “Here you are, Mr. Morgan. I was hoping to find you.”
But all was still, as, I supposed, reverence demanded.
I considered reviving my old habit of writing to Miss Bellefey and epistolizing about how I missed her, but the temptation was not hard to resist, as I knew that succumbing to it would secure me embarrassment rather than relief. Miss Bellefey had expressed her feelings plainly, and it would be fruitless to express my own—my hopelessness, my despondency, my despair.
But what was that distant rustle? That delicate sound—like slippers on leaves? That light, reverberating tread padding, softly now, on the brown bed of needles?
My hope drew nearer; the prospect lifted my heart. My pulse pounded; my face felt hot; my composure failed me.
“Mr. Morgan?” a high voice called through the gathering dusk. “Mr. Morgan? Oh, my goodness, it is you, Mr. Morgan! What a delight! How are you, Mr. Morgan?”
A familiar, middle-aged figure advanced toward me with short, quick steps—a pleasant face; a round, maternal figure; a modern and brightly colored dress—Catherine Bellefey’s mother, filled with her customary enthusiasm and high spirits.
She took me off guard. I had been so consumed with absorbing the atmosphere of autumn and mulling over my loss of this good woman’s daughter that I was now in a state of shock. Besides Edmund and one or two personages at the office, I had spoken lately only to mysterious and otherworldly creatures. I had neglected shaving; my chops were untrimmed; my trousers were unpressed (for Mrs. Jameson, unlike Mrs. Vane, was not in the habit of attending to gentlemen’s wardrobes); my cravat was loose; my boots were scuffed; my hat was crumpled; I was shamefully disheveled.
Now the good Mrs. Bellefey stood before me with color in her cheeks and at a loss for breath—either because of her walking exertion or because of her exuberance—she was often quite breathless, I recalled. Even when she had sat quietly on the sofa with her sewing and allowed Catherine and me to chatter nervously among ourselves, she had constantly fanned herself and had taken in gasps of air whenever her daughter and I looked fondly upon one another. She reminded me of a bright balloon sailing in the air, continually ascending with optimism and good cheer.
“Mrs. Bellefey!” I exclaimed. I rose to greet her, and my hat fell from my hand as I removed it from my head. I bent to retrieve it, and my handkerchief dropped from my coat pocket. I retrieved both from before the foot of the beaming woman—how close she had come to being my mother-in-law!—then shook her hand. “My! I’m quite well, Mrs. Bellefey! Thank you. Pray, how do you fair?”
“Oh, my dear Mr. Morgan! How overwhelmed and excited I am! I am so thrilled to see you! I feel as though a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders! I was just taking a turn for some air—what luck! At last! I feel so confined if I don’t walk every day, you know. That’s where Catherine gets her joy for excursions, of course. Oh, but please, Mr. Morgan, please walk me home and come visit with Catherine! She will be so delighted to see you—I cannot tell you how thrilled!”
This sounded unlikely—I did not think that Miss Bellefey would relish seeing the man she had decided not to marry—and yet my heart hammered in my throat. For two months I had thought that I would give anything to see Miss Bellefey again. But now the prospect of actually laying eyes on her extraordinary features overwhelmed me with anxiety. What would I say to the woman I loved, who did not love me? It was better if I never saw her again—as I had believed that indeed I never would.
“Thank you, Mrs. Bellefey, but I’m afraid I’m in a rush. I must—”
“But Mr. Morgan! Catherine has been so miserable! Nothing would cheer her as much as seeing you!”
I was incredulous at the notion that Miss Bellefey’s mother entertained such a mistaken belief.
“Please, Mrs. Bellefey. I’m sorry. I do not think your daughter would—”
“But there was a misunderstanding, Mr. Morgan! Sentiments erroneously conveyed! Feelings wrongly pronounced! Just a little hiccup! Catherine knows now that one must never jump to conclusions. Please don’t presume what she would or would not do—or what she would or would not like—as she presumed foolishness about your emotions. I beg you, Mr. Morgan, please reconsider your decision. Pray, please come and visit with Catherine.”
I thought of how Miss Bellefey and I had regarded each other as if we had known each other longer than we had, as if we could see through each other, as if we were made of air, as if with each breath we each absorbed a fuller knowledge of the other’s nature. I thought of how taken aback I had been when her words shifted suddenly from good-humored teasing to communications of termination. I thought, with a delicious feeling of hope, that perhaps I had misunderstood her. But there was no ambiguity in the words “I cannot marry you, Mr. Morgan.”
“Please, Mrs. Bellefey, I would relish nothing more, but—”
“But you’ve grown so thin! So pallid! So like Catherine! You do not look well either, Mr. Morgan.”
“Catherine does not look well?”
Mrs. Bellefey took a shallow breath.
“Catherine has not been well,” she said.
There was pain in her kind blue eyes.
“Oh, Mr. Morgan, my dear daughter will not eat, she will not read, she will not walk, she will not sleep—she will only gaze out the window with tears in her eyes.”
“But she has been strong, Mr. Morgan. Those tears have never spilled in the presence of myself or her father. Though Clara—you remember Clara, Mr. Morgan—Clara says differently.”
“But why does Catherine cry? Why is she ill? Why is she pallid and thin?”
I no longer cared if Miss Bellefey would refuse to receive me. I was now determined to behold her beauty, to ascertain that her mother exaggerated and she was in fact quite well. Indeed I feared that Catherine would not be happy with the visit that I was now compelled to make, but, as Mrs. Bellefey proclaimed differently, I could not deny myself the opportunity to perhaps be gladly received. And if I refused Mrs. Bellefey’s invitation, I would never know for certain how my beauty fared.
“You are pallid and thin too, Mr. Morgan,” Mrs. Bellefey declared.
She had seen me waver; she had observed that I was drawn by the necessity of ascertaining her daughter’s welfare; she knew that I would not again refuse her invitation, and yet she added to the pull with a maternal appeal to my own well-being.
“You are in need of cake, Mr. Morgan,” she said. “You require fattening, and it is getting cold, and dark, and I will not take no for an answer. You must partake in something wholesome!”
And at this, the good woman, driven by a protective concern for my physical state, took my arm—with more firmness that one would expect for a diminutive lady—and steered me down the familiar path that meandered toward the street on which the beautiful Catherine Bellefey lived.