In her heart, Mercy contrasted the replies of her two lovers. She could not banish the feeling that one was the voice of a truer love than the other. She fought against the feeling as against a treason; but the truth was strongest. In her heart, she knew that the man she did not love was manlier than the man she loved.
For the first few months after Mercy went away, Stephen seemed to himself to be like an automaton, which had been wound up to go through certain movements for a certain length of time, and could by no possibility stop. He did not suffer as he had expected. Sometimes it seemed to him that he did not suffer at all; and he was terrified at this very absence of suffering. Then again he had hours and days of a dull despair, which was worse than any more active form of suffering. Now he understood, he thought, how in the olden time men had often withdrawn themselves from the world after some great grief, and had lived long, stagnant lives in deserts and caves. He had thought it would kill him to lose Mercy out of his life. Now he felt sure that he should live to be a hundred years old; should live by very help of the apathy into which he had sunk. Externally, he seemed very little changed,—a trifle quieter, perhaps, and gentler. His mother sometimes said to herself,—
“Steve is really getting old very fast for so young a man;” but she was content with the change. It seemed to bring them nearer together, and made her feel more at ease as to the possibility of his falling in love. Her old suspicions and jealousies of Mercy had died out root and branch, within three months after her departure. Stephen’s unhesitating assurance to her that he did not expect to write to Mercy had settled the question in her mind once for all. If she had known that at the very moment when he uttered these words he had one long letter from Mercy and another to her lying in his pocket, the shock might well-nigh have killed her; for never once in Mrs. White’s most jealous and ill-natured hours had the thought crossed her mind that her son would tell her a deliberate lie. He told it, however, unflinchingly, in as gentle and even a tone and with as unruffled a brow as he would have bade her good-morning. He had thought the whole matter over, and deliberately resolved to do it. He did it to save her from pain; and he had no more compunction about it than he would have had about closing a blind, to shut out a sunlight too strong for her eyes. What a terrible thing is the power which human beings have of deceiving each other! Woe to any soul which trusts itself to any thing less than an organic integrity of nature, to which a lie is impossible!