The full consciousness of all that he had surrendered in yielding up afresh his heritage rolled in on his memory, like the wave of some heavy sea that sweeps down all before it.
When that tear-blotted and miserable letter had reached him in the green alleys of the Stephanien, and confessed to him that his brother had relied on the personal likeness between them and the similarity of their handwriting to pass off as his the bill in which his own name and that of his friend was forged, no thought had crossed him to take upon himself the lad’s sin. It had only been when, brought under the charge, he must, to clear himself, have at once accused the boy, and have betrayed the woman whose reputation was in his keeping, that, rather by generous impulse than by studied intention, he had taken up the burden that he had now carried for so long. Whether or no the money-lenders had been themselves in reality deceived, he could never tell; but it had been certain that, having avowed themselves confident of his guilt, they could never shift the charge on to his brother in the face of his own acceptance of it. So he had saved the youth without premeditation or reckoning of the cost. And now that the full cost was known to him, he had not shrunk back from its payment. Yet that payment was one that gave him a greater anguish than if he had laid down his life in physical martyrdom.
To go back to the old luxury, and ease, and careless peace; to go back to the old, fresh, fair English woodlands, to go back to the power of command and the delight of free gifts, to go back to men’s honor, and reverence, and high esteem—these would have been sweet enough—sweet as food after long famine. But far more than these would it have been to go back and take the hand of his friend once more in the old, unclouded trust of their youth; to go back, and stand free and blameless among his peers, and know that all that man could do to win the heart and the soul of a woman he could at his will do to win hers whose mere glance of careless pity had sufficed to light his life to passion. And he had renounced all this. This was the cost; and he had paid it—paid it because the simple, natural, inflexible law of justice had demanded it.
One whom he had once chosen to save he could not now have deserted, except by what would have been, in his sight, dishonor. Therefore, when the day broke, and the memories of the night came with his awakening, he knew that his future was without hope—without it as utterly as was ever that of any captive shut in darkness, and silence, and loneliness, in a prison, whose only issue was the oubliettes. There is infinite misery in the world, but this one misery is rare; or men would perish from the face of the earth as though the sun withdrew its light.
Alone in that dreary scene, beautiful from its vastness and its solemnity, but unutterably melancholy, unutterably oppressive, he also wondered whether he lived or dreamed.