It would strain the credulity of anyone still following this overgrown invention to accept actual lines thrust into the mouths of such famous authors as Mr. Shakespeare and Mrs. Haywood. Know that Henry was not disappointed by their competing narrations, and found he vacillated in his admiration of the two: the poet's soaring stanzas and clever verses made even the most humble events inspiring, yet the lady's general wit and expansive paragraphs were as well able to arouse delight. In their combined hands the tale was transformed from the nonsensical to the incredible by nothing more than a turn of phrase, or even a mere changed word.
But through it all Catherine remained as she was. Indeed, surrounded by so much vivacity, she looked even less substantial, neither blithe nor dour, but only of a strange ephemeral quality quite unlike her normal state. At last they came to the very moment he had dreaded, the present; for with all his cleverness and schemes, the would-be deliverer had still failed. His heart was at war: more full of amusement than ever he could remember, yet emptied of any hope for the success of his mission. Henry reached out again, feebly attempting to hold her hand at least, and was denied even that. It appeared his bride was truly lost to him forever.
Looking up, he beheld two expectant sets of eyes trained upon him, and realized the entire table was rapt with the same occupation; he could even feel his Grandfather's gaze from behind. "What is there to be done?" he finally asked, giving up all pretense of wisdom, at a loss for how to proceed.
"The play may catch the conscience of the king, and music be the food of love," the Bard spoke feelingly, "but it is mercy that droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. Charity itself fulfills the law. And who can sever love from charity? So said one foolish knave of my invention. But what words will you offer: the sounding brass, or a cymbal rang?"
Mrs. Haywood was no less forthright. "No man may know how he will love before it falls upon him; yet of all the beauties, it is that which attracts the most lasting admiration, gives the greatest charm to every thing we say or do, thro' every stage of life, which we must acknowledge with all our hearts. You have forgotten the most maladjusted aspect of your drama: no hero should escape making his declaration of love, even by the contrivance of a letter."
"And if I may," the other said, "for the lady has said truest, yet I will commend you not to be too tame in thy admission. You have suited deed to the outflow of thy heart, but not word to the action. Recall the purpose for our talents, first and now, was and is, to hold the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature. Speak the speech, in the accent of good English."
Not to be outdone, and with a knowing smile of contrariety, the lady concluded, "To know ourselves, is agreed by all to be the most useful learning; to know others is perhaps beyond any ken, ay and not without its dangers. But in my thought, it is not enough to be good, without behaving in such a manner as shall make others acknowledge us to be so. The first lessons, of any man or marriage, ought to be on that subject. What would you say to prove the justice of your ardor?"
After surrendering the battlefield to those worthier of the office, it had not occurred to Henry he would need to compose a soliloquy, though at this point he acknowledged there was little left to comprehend the fullness of their sport. Nor should he have thought he could steal the words of others to regain his beloved. If there were deficiencies in his narrative, it was not for others to make amends. Leaving his chair Henry turned away from the multitude, and instead kneeled before the only one he wished to attract.
"If it be right, and you will hear me, I promise to speak only what is true: no prevarication, no flights of fancy. I see how little embellishment will avail. I can not swear to have loved you with the same constancy you have bestowed on me. Nor claim that I came for you only out of passion alone. If able, I would be more than I am, I do not deny the need—but what I lack of perfections I profess to admire in you. For where I may falter, you have never failed; and no contrivance or disguise could bid your affections hide. All virtues as you possess are further proofs of divine tenderness. It may, in fact, be wrong of me to ask you to leave behind this expectant green, so fitted for your open spirit, and which you must return to at last. I will only say in my defense that if I was slower in my adoration, I am no less conquered by it; though circumspect in courting, have I not the same result? Kindness opened my heart, not mere beauty or youth; the loveliness of a candid nature which must brighten all who gain your attachment, and lessen that same when separated. So I ask, dearest and most delightful Catherine, if you will allow me not to possess but share the remainder of what days the Lord allows us, if only to teach me to accept better the time when we must, for the brevity of a life, part again?"
A hush followed his words, but Henry was not paying mind to anyone else in attendance. Instead he decided even a tired conceit might be redeemed by the sincerity of its execution, and giving no thought for the gaze of his family, the apprehension of great minds, or even whatever of celestial continence might be demanded, he laid a kiss upon her waxen lips.
When he felt her respond to his touch, he opened his eyes to view her answering stare. Her quiet "Henry?" was so soft as to be said for him alone but greeted by all and sundry with huzzahs of the strongest celebration. There was no heart unmoved, no specter unexcited. Even the angels might have joined in the tumult for all Henry knew; he was lost in an embrace with his love, and might have been content to remain thus forever more, had the lady herself not asked to be taken home.
The adrmiable authors shook hands with the couple, each gratified to have been of the smallest aid in this transformation and receiving the kindest thanks in return for their efforts. It was acknowledged by all four that neither must be said to have carried the day, but each in their own turn furnished some part of the whole.
Grandfather Drummond bowed over the awakened lady's hand, and complimented her for inspiring his grandson's valor. "The characters of you both must be improved by the match, which is the best that marriage may offer. I trust you will not waste that which Heaven is granting you anew."
Henry promised to keep thanksgiving alive and well in their home, a vow Catherine joined in at once. His mother rose and offered her regards to a daughter so lately introduced and so quickly taken from her side. "I will look forward to seeing you again, though hopefully that will not be soon. But know I will always take a concern in you, no matter when we shall be reunited." And turning to her son, she said "I have but one request to make in our parting, and pray you will honor me as your loving mother for asking."
"Of course," Henry replied at once. "You have but to name it."
"When you are returned you may not speak of what you have seen; it will be as a dream, and impossible to describe except in the most broad and deficient overtones. But I have long wished to give dear Eleanor some parting words, as I was unable to do in life. Will you serve as my messenger, and bear my tidings straight to her ear?"
"There is no task I would like better, save the one I have nearly completed."
"You are a good son," she said, with that same air of calm, just the other side of regret. "But you do not know how difficult the task is. For the only way you will be able to remember is to carry the words upon your tongue, unspoken and untasted, borne fresh until you meet with her. From the moment I speak in your ear till the time you release them anew, you must be mute, not even to write them down, for you may not take anything back from this place except your bride. Will you still perform this errand?"
"Aye, with all my heart: after so much talk, it will be a relief to leave off conversation until then," Henry answered with confidence, which showed how little any of us may learn from our experiences, given the foolishness of his promise. Yet how great is the human capacity to believe in its own abilities where a labor of love is asked.
His mother bent forward, and her language was of such higher a value than any she might have provided while gasping for breath on earth, with encouragement of the finest quality, and heavenly counsels to make any heart rejoice, that Henry nearly wept at being made the bearer of it. But he took all in and sealed his lips, not willing less the slightest syllable should escape ere his errand was complete.
"You will need to take another way back," his Grandfather said, watching keenly what had occurred, "for if you are wetted now you may yet forget all; and the river is not to be crossed twice by those few chosen to revive. But do not be concerned: the dog is able to guide your way," and here the animal darted forward with an eager yelp.
With such adieus, and taking his wife firmly by the arm, Henry turned in silence to follow the faithful hound. It was well that Catherine was not so inhibited, and Henry was not the sorrier for listening to her raptures, or nodding appreciatively as she mused on their future happiness together. The pleasant, easy countryside was nothing to traverse, the weather so pleasing it could do no naught but enliven.
They were heading gradually south toward the shores of time, and could just see a crossing in the distance. Across that chasm the light was no longer so bright, but that might have been because the bridge itself was so brilliant as to cast a shadow on all else. Their guide was patient as they had to more cautiously pick their way downhill, the grassy path growing rockier and steeper the closer they came to their destination.
No longer did Catherine offer her happy commentary, as both she and Henry had to watch their purchase on the steepening incline. He took to leading the way, finding the best placement for their steps and reaching back to help her down. Once his hand came up empty and looking behind, he saw her turned back toward the sunnier plane they had left, a pensive expression on her features. Henry nearly called her name but checked himself in time, only grasped her hand in some urgency.
"Oh! I thought I heard someone call me," was Catherine's explanation and though she smiled it did not lift his unease, for it held a strange light, as if she could see what he could not, reminding him she was not mortal yet. "But let us continue, we must be close."
He nodded and returned her smile as best he could, but did not let go her hand again as they pressed on, reminded as he was of his own difficulties with siren calls. But hopefully, he comforted himself, on a platform so high above the water they would be spared its influences. And they were together again. Surely a miracle was enough to grant them safe passage.
As they came even with it, the bridge shown with such radiance that all beyond was veiled in even greater obscurity. But Henry thought he recognized the road near Catherine's home, and by her reaction believed his guess to be true. When they would have crossed at once, the dog leapt in front of them, a warning bark halting their progression. Henry realized a living being guarded the bridge, sword in hand: he had taken her for a carving, but a sharp click of the tongue put the lie to that notion.
"So, Catherine, how do you do? And where are you going?" were the questions posed by this fine personage, leaning on her walking stick without any appearance of needing to, its head as fiery as her looks. "I suppose you have good reason for being out of humor with your circumstances."
Henry nearly objected to this pointed address but held firm, only gripping Catherine's arm tighter. She answered, "I am sure I am not annoyed at anything, but I should like to return with my husband if I may."
The lady eyed them, a sharp scrutiny that put to mind sparks from a kitchen knife. "And has he nothing to say for himself, this presumptuous Adam's son who presses his claim past all delicacy?"
It is fortunate Henry was plagued with too many delicious replies to choose from as an aid to his sorely tested forbearance. He contented himself with a modest bow laced with mock deference, and wished he still had a hat to tip to this oh so nice madame. Catherine, perhaps still of a more heavenly persuasion, said, "You must excuse my husband, he has a message he is carrying for our sister."
"It is not the usual thing to permit, but imprudence can not be surprising at this point. Your owning it is sufficient. I will not refuse his errand, nor you to accompany him: it is well you have a partner, as a solitary walker turning back to the extensive gardens of the world might not be trusted to her own inclinations. As your breath stirs, and your heart swells with rising blood, see you do not ramble from your asserted goal: it is by your actions you will be judged."
"I will do my utmost not to disappoint, for no man could be better worth keeping than Henry."
There was little that could have been said in answer to this notion even had he been at liberty; it remained for Henry's cheeks to betray his thoughts.
The mistress gatekeeper beamed in every sense of the word, though whither it was altogether approving was difficult to determine. "You are not unworthy of esteem yourself; you show a virtue I did not expect. Do not forget it soon." So saying she swept aside in a fuss of dress, each vivid strand defying even the minutest observer to determine its cost or purity, and lowered her sword in deference, the dog kneeling in similar farewell at her feet.
It was a sturdy bridge, ample enough to handle twice as many arm in arm, with a lustrous roof serving as shelter against the graying sky. Though a smoother and more easy road than what they had so recently traveled, each found their pace slowing, a latent heaviness creeping into their limbs with every inch gained. Henry strove to ignore the yearning to linger, a feeling only strengthened as the sensibilities of that other place weakened. He caught himself starting to open his lips, the desire to fill the air with some distraction nearly overpowering, and only by the strictest discipline kept his tongue in check.
At last the bridge's end could be sighted, the world beyond opening before them in all its base and dusky grandeur. Catherine's sigh was the only one heard, but not without a sympathetic echo in her partner's soul. Neither quite realized they had come to a stop, so gradually had their advance slowed, and it was difficult to say which was more reluctant to pass back into their imperfect lives. "But we must keep going," Catherine spoke with resolution, "if we are to be home again, with all those we know and love."
One stride more would take them to their journey's end, and it was the most terrible one to take of all, a thousand weights seeming to press upon them, the light so dim as to be unintelligible from night and a gloom thick as treacle. With leaden tread they crept over the threshold, expecting every oppressive fear to overtake them as they reached solid ground again.
Instead, it was as if they rose from bed, and the world presented itself as they had always known it: imperfect yet wondrously familiar. No dark and terrible forest guarded their way; rather the well-trimmed Wiltshire trees gave way to the stage road nearby as the sounds of trilling birds, humming insects, and distant chatter returned their senses to a more natural appreciation and awareness.
So happy was he to complete their awful journey that Henry took up his restored bride in a sudden embrace, which she received with commensurate excitement. Only when they relaxed their arms was it apparent that Catherine remained attired in her funerary garb, a flowing jaconet of overlong sleeves and heavy braiding, none of which offered much protection against the wind. Henry tugged off his coat to give her, amused at the sight they would make in town, when Catherine exclaimed, "How could they let me be buried in this dress, that I always hated, and hardly ever wore at all? And someone has tied it so awfully tight, I can barely move or breathe." Then she frowned with all the injured pride a very young and most certainly living girl might feel, and not like a shade at all.
What Henry might have said in reply was never to be known. It was not a word either of mirth or mockery that betrayed his will; a laugh burst from him unbidden, yet so needful for the relief of his overstrained and uproarious feelings. No sooner had this expression of his amusement sounded than the unvoiced message flew out as well, though he immediately shut his teeth closed again, nearly biting his gums in desperation to keep some semblance of that barely remembered report.
His chagrin must have shown, for Catherine was roused from her irritability to exclaim, "I am sorry: I have been the cause of your disappointment, which will be even the worse for Eleanor to bear, denied your mother's voice twice over! But I will fetch the words back, for I can see them rolling toward the water, they have not gone far." Then she fled back to the shore, no longer so clear to be seen or heard, and as Henry ran after he was dismayed to realize Catherine herself appeared to fade so that he could barely keep her in sight.
Unbound from his promise he called her name, begging her to ignore the loss and return to him. He could not make out the bridge or the other coast at all; only his clouded view of Catherine's stopped form showed where the water's bank must be. She knelt as if searching, heedless of her previous complaint. "Catherine, dearest, there is no need, I will explain all to Eleanor, it is my own stupidity to blame, not you."
But as he approached she cried out in triumph, and leapt forward to cup her hands in the barely discernible surf. Her garments dampened as she leant ever farther out, yet impossibly grew lighter and more gauzy; and rather than sink deeper, it was as if Catherine rose, her motions that of a fish, her position as a bird's, now so fine her outstretched arms disappeared completely. In alarm did Henry shout and try to follow, yet even as he lunged after her, she passed beyond his sight, along with any trace of those strange, treacherous waters. He landed in an ungainly pile upon the dirt, then scrambled up and searched all around him. Frantically he called her name again, and again, and again, walking this way and that, begging whatever guardian was closest to heal his blindness. He pulled out those precious pages so carefully penned for his use, but in vain: no ending had been writ upon them, only enough to set him on his journey. Flinging them aside in reckless abandon he climbed the nearest tree, heedless of any danger to person or clothes, and sought on high what could not be discerned below.
Stretching as far as his perch would allow he peered into the clouds, and thought he spied the slightest trace of a cotton hem. Without a second thought he reached out to grab hold of the garment he knew would heal the cavity within his ribs. But the flesh proved weaker and heavier than his spirit, and toppling, he flew toward the stony ground instead of the heavens.
The fall caused him to jerk and gasp, his eyes opening wide in terror, only to behold his own Parsonage's study, though from the position of the floor instead of his usual chair. Sitting up, he found a mess of letters and an overturned book scattered round him, obviously pulled from the secretary he had been working at before he so indecorously fell under the thrall of Morpheus, and thence from his seat besides.
He took a moment to shake his head, for the space of a breath unsure if this were the dream or no. His rational mind was swiftly brought to fore not only by the contemplation of all he had so fantastically envisioned, but also the realization that one of his fingers had been pricked by his carelessness. Henry looked down at the offending appendage, and smiled in bemused wonder. He had been woolgathering far too much of late; if his friends could see him, sick to the point of madness in love, driven to dreamy desperation by waiting for consent to marry, and unable even to finish a letter to his betrothed without coming into a scrape, he would never live down the raillery at his expense.
Undaunted, Henry resumed his chair, picked through the papers till he found the one he been working on, and lit another candle with extravagant glee as he brought his pen to bear. "I had meant to write that I missed you more than words could ever tell; but I think I may yet have some to offer..."