Love Against Reason


Barbara Handshy Anderson

                      

 

 

"I did not, even that romantic morning, invest her with any attributes save those she possessed. I mention this in this place, of a fixed purpose, because it is the clew by which I am to be followed into my poor labyrinth. According to my experience, the conventional notion of a lover cannot always be true. The unqualified truth is, that when I loved Estella with the love of a man, I loved her simply because I found her irresistible. Once for all; I knew to my sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against all discouragement that could be.” [1]

 

As Vincent read, the words unexpectedly opened a wound he’d thought long healed. Leftover shards of an old, shattered dream suddenly pierced his heart and took his breath away.

 

Catherine could feel the air in the chamber suddenly become heavy. He hadn’t stopped reading so much as his voice had been extinguished into silence, much like a candle’s flame slowly goes out when it’s starved of oxygen. As his voice faded, the only ‘light’ she’d had to hold on to for the last several horrifying days, sputtered and went out as well.

 

As the darkness closed in on her and she felt like a little girl again, lost and alone in the dark.

“Vincent?” Her question was met with silence. “Is something wrong?”

 

Her gentle voice pierced his reverie, but he was momentarily too overcome by painful memories to speak.

 

“Are you still there?” She stifled a whimper as she tried to suppress the panic within her.

He could feel the fear rising in her.

 

“I’m still here, Catherine,” he whispered reassuringly. “I’m sorry, I... I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

 

She breathed a sigh of relief. She could feel herself blushing beneath the bandages. She was embarrassed to admit, at her age, how afraid she still was of the dark.

 

“Are you all right, Vincent? Those words... they were... painful... to you?”

 

Artfully dodging her question, he replied, “It’s very late, Catherine. You should probably rest. Perhaps we should stop reading for tonight.”

 

Beside the fact that he had no desire to speak of it to anyone, he saw no reason to burden this virtual stranger with his private pain. She was already dealing with too much of her own.

 

No, please, can we at least finish this chapter?” she pleaded. She wasn’t ready to face the dreams she knew were waiting for her in her sleep.

 

It wasn’t particularly the story she wanted to hear, but she desperately needed to hear his voice. It comforted her. Its soft, silky tone was her “candle” in the darkness. It was her only connection with the world of light, the world outside of her living shroud. She wasn’t sure why, but his reading, the sound of his voice, somehow kept the fear at bay.

 

He sighed. The passage he’d read had resurrected an old, deep pain. Even Catherine had perceived it. He wasn’t eager to continue, and yet Vincent found he couldn’t deny her wishes. He could feel her fear, her pain, her aloneness in the dark.

 

She is a creature of the light, he realized. Even in her condition, she almost glows with it. She isn’t used to living in the dark.

 

The feelings of loneliness he recognized in her were feelings he had only ever felt within himself. He knew how suffocating that isolation could be. He couldn’t bring himself to leave her alone in it. He wasn’t sure why, but she seemed to find some comfort when he read to her.

 

“Very well, Catherine.” He relented. “We can finish this chapter. And then you must rest.”

 

She nodded her agreement and he began again.

 

“… Once for all: I loved her nonetheless because I knew it, and it had no more influence in restraining me than if I had devoutly believed her to be human perfection…”

It was Vincent’s turn to blush. The words were Dicken’s, but reading them somehow made him feel as if he was revealing some deep, secret part of himself he had always kept carefully hidden. It made him feel vulnerable and exposed. He shook off the ridiculous thought. It’s Dickens, that’s all it is. She can’t possibly know, he assured himself.

 

“I so shaped my walk as to arrive at the gate at my old time…”

he continued.

 

 

 

 

As he read, he could feel her calm return and the fear subside. He knew it was only temporary, though. He was well aware of her nightmares. How could she not be afraid after what she’s been through?

 

And yet he was impressed that she seemed to bear it all with a quiet dignity. In the six days she had been here, she had made hardly a complaint, even though he knew she was frightened and still in pain. He was in awe of her strength in the face of the circumstances she found herself in, as well as her blind trust in him after the brutal attack she had endured.

 

His voice faltered again, as he read,

“Love her, love her, love her. If she favors you, love her. If she wounds, you love her. If she tears your heart to pieces, -- and as you get older and stronger it will tear deeper, -- love her, love her, love her!’

Catherine was sure she could sense his anguish as he read Miss Havisham’s words,

“I’ll tell you,” said she, in the same hurried passionate whisper, “what real love is. It’s blind devotion, un-questioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter – as I did!”

She was beginning to think that she should relieve him of his commitment to finish the chapter, but the mere thought of being left alone in the dark and the silence was too much for her. She could feel her selfishness convicting her, but still, she remained quiet... and Vincent read on.

 

Finally the torturous chapter came to a close.

“Ah me!” he read. “I thought those were high and great emotions. But I never thought there was anything low in my keeping away from Joe, because I knew she would be contemptuous of him. It was but a day gone, and Joe had brought the tears into my eyes; they had soon dried, God forgive me! Soon dried.”

The room was silent once more. She heard a soft thud as he closed the book and placed it on the table. He sighed as if he was thankful that it was finally over. Although she had agreed to rest when he finished the chapter, Catherine was reluctant to let him leave.

 

Grasping for any conversation to delay his departure, she said, “You read beautifully, Vincent. You make me feel as if I’m there, watching it all. It helps me forget for a little while. Thank you.”

 

“You’re welcome, Catherine.” 

 

“Was she beautiful?” she tentatively asked.

 

“Who?”

 

Your... ‘Estella’. The girl with no heart. The bright, and beautiful, inaccessible girl who wounded you and tore your heart to pieces?”

 

Vincent was too stunned to speak. How can she possibly know that? He thought in a panic.

 

Realizing she had overstepped some invisible boundary, she rushed to apologize. “I’m sorry, Vincent. I... I had no right to pry.” She hesitated for a moment. “It’s just that as you read you…”

 

“What? I what?” He was desperate to know what he had done to reveal such a private part of himself, so that he wouldn’t do it again.

 

“While you were reading...” she gently replied, “sometimes it sounded as if... as if you weren’t reading from a book. It sounded more like you were reading from your own private... journal.”

 

He glance furtively at the book shelf that held his old journals. Has she been reading my...? he wondered. Then coming to his senses, he thought, Don’t be ludicrous. She couldn’t read them even if she wanted to, with her face bandaged as it is. Still, looking a little closer to be sure, he was relieved to see that the thin layer of dust that covered the neglected bookshelf containing his journals was undisturbed.

 

When Vincent didn’t respond, Catherine was compelled to fill the silent void.

 

“I suppose there’s a little bit of Pip in all of us, isn’t there? Sooner or later young, tender hearts are bound to be wounded by someone.”

 

Vincent thought about it for a moment, then asked, “What about you, Catherine? Was there ever a young man who wounded you?”

 

He winced as the words escaped his lips, and immediately wanted to kick himself. IGNORAMOUS! HAS A MAN EVER WOUNDED HER? He mentally berated himself. How could you ask such a thoughtless question? he silently demanded. Of course she’s been ‘wounded’!! Look at her, you fool. Just who is the blind one here, you or her?

 

Evidently oblivious to his verbal blunder, Catherine replied, “Yes, I suppose... at least it seemed like it at the time. When we’re young, we have a way of blowing everything out of proportion, don’t we? I know I did.” She sighed upon the self-reflection. “But looking back... I’m not sure if I’ve ever truly loved a man deeply enough to be wounded like that. Not the way Dickens describes it, anyway. I hate to say it, but I see more than a little of Estella in myself than I would like to admit.”

 

Catherine was shocked that she had made such an admission. Being ashamed of herself was not an emotion she was well acquainted with. Even if she was, she certainly wouldn’t confess it to anyone, least of all a relative stranger.

 

But somehow, Vincent didn’t feel like a stranger.

 

“I find that difficult to believe, Catherine,” Vincent said dubiously. “In the six days I’ve known you, I have not detected even the slightest resemblance to that particular character.”

 

She smiled a little at his subtle attempt to make her feel better.

 

“Don’t be fooled by this polished veneer, Vincent,” she said with a hint of sarcasm. “Six days is hardly enough time for even my manicure to wear thin.” Then in a more serious tone, she confided. “Sometimes I fear, that like Estella, I too may have no heart. Maybe I’m not capable of loving like that.”

 

Although she was trying to be dismissive about it, Vincent detected that she did, at least to some degree, see herself in that way. He wondered why.

 

He had felt her concern for her father grow over the last several days. There was a sadness about her as well, something beyond her recent trauma. He was sure that if it was true that she had no heart, she wouldn’t feel those things so deeply.

 

“Perhaps Estella isn’t as heartless as you thinks she is,” he suggested. “We won’t know for sure until we have read the last chapter, now, will we?”

 

“I suppose not,” she quietly replied. He’s being very charitable, she thought. I wonder what he would think if he really knew me?

 

“I know what you are doing, Catherine.” Vincent said, changing the subject. “You’re stalling. You agreed that you would rest after we finished that chapter. I must insist on it. You need to sleep. I promised Father I would take full responsibility for your care. He will not be happy with me if he discovers you’re tired and weak.”

 

She sighed, “Yes, I suppose I should try to rest. Vincent... I... can I ask you something?

 

“What is it?”

 

“I was wondering if... before you go... could you help me? I... I need to… uhm…”

 

“You need to use the...” Guessing correctly, he tried to put as delicately as possible. “…the powder room?”

 

Catherine nodded. He could tell she was embarrassed to ask for help.

 

“Should I go and get Mary?” he offered.

 

“No, please... don’t wake her,” she insisted. “I’m sure I can manage in the bathroom on my own now. It’s just that... I don’t think I can find my way there without help. Could you... please...?”

 

“You want me to take you there?”

 

“Yes… please... If it isn’t too much trouble.”

 

“It’s no trouble, Catherine,” he said. “Do you need me to carry you?’ he asked as he leaned toward her.

 

She put up her hand. “No, you don’t need to carry me, Vincent. I want to walk. If you could just help me up, and then give me your arm.”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“Father said, if I don’t get up and walk enough, fluid could collect in my lungs and I could get pneumonia. In light of that, I think walking would be best.”

 

“Very well, if you’re sure.”

 

He helped her with her slippers and then stood close for her to slip her arm through his, careful not to let her touch his hands, again.

 

As they slowly made their way to the bathroom, Catherine was concentrating so much on each step that the conversation lagged. She stopped momentarily and reached her free hand out to lean against the wall.

 

“Are you in pain, Catherine?” He knew she was, but he could see that she was too proud to admit it, or to ask him to carry her.

 

She hesitated to answer him. She didn’t’ want to acknowledge it, but she didn’t want to lie to him either. Finally, a little out of breath, she conceded “Yes, but I can feel that the bruises are healing, and my ribs don’t hurt nearly as much as they did in the beginning.”

 

“I could easily carry you,” he offered again.

 

“Thank you,” she said, shaking her head. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

 

She reached for his arm again and they resumed walking in silence until they arrived at their destination.

 

“Here we are,” he said as he opened the door and guided her to it.

 

“Thank you, Vincent. I’ll be right out.”

 

The ancient porcelain toilet was shockingly cold, but it was functional, and for that, she was grateful. The entire routine was more taxing than she thought it would be, but she was proud that she was finally able to take care of herself to some extent. It meant she was surely recovering and she would soon be able to go home.

 

Each day she was increasingly worried that her father must be frantic after not hearing from her for so long. She needed to get back to her life.

 

By the time she emerged from the bathroom chamber, Vincent could see that she was shaky and weak.

 

“Catherine, please, I can see how tired you are, please allow me to carry you back.”

 

Leaning against the tunnel wall to catch her breath, she shook her head again. “No. If I walk I’ll get stronger. I need to recover so I can go home. My father must be worried sick.

 

She slipped her arm in his and leaned heavily against him for a few steps before her knees began to buckle. She cried out in pain before she could stop herself.

 

Vincent caught her in his arms before she could fall. “Catherine!” he exclaimed, the concern clear in his voice.

 

“Thank you... for catching me.” She winced as another moan escaped her lips. “If you don’t mind, I think I might need to take you up on that offer after all.”

 

Without hesitating he scooped her into his arms as gently as he could.

 

“Are you in much pain? Should I summon Father?”

 

“No. It’s better now. Don’t worry,” she fibbed.

 

“You must not be in the habit of lying, Catherine,” he observed. “You’re very bad at it.”

 

Under different circumstances she might have laughed. But this wasn’t any of those circumstances. Her only response was another soft moan.

 

As he carried her she was too weak to even hold her head up, so she rested it on his chest. He didn’t seem to mind.

 

She breathed deeply and then sighed. As she did, he felt something stir in her. “Is something wrong?”

 

“No, Vincent. I was just enjoying your...” She was suddenly embarrassed. “uhm... aroma.”

He was silent, unsure how to respond.

 

“Have you been out in the rain?” she asked softly.

 

A little surprised, he said “Yes, for a little while... I went for a walk up in the Central Park this evening. It has been raining. How did you know?”

 

“You smell of the earth when it rains, and like...” she breathed in again and said, “candles... and...” She paused and tilted her head, as if contemplating.

 

“And what?” He was dying to know what else he smelled like, to her.

 

She buried her nose in his vest and inhaled. He could sense her surprise as she lifted her head and turned her bandaged face to his as if looking into his eyes and said, “Lonicera fragrantissima,” she said, clearly surprised.

 

He thought he saw a slight smile on her lips, when she said, “Kiss me at the gate, Vincent.”

 

Momentarily jolted by her bold, unexpected request, he wasn’t sure how to respond. Finally he stammered, “I’m... I’m not sure I understand. What did you...?”

 

“It’s ‘Kiss-me-at-the-gate’,” she said again before he could finish the question. “Honeysuckle.” She laid her head back down and breathed it in again. “When I was a little girl, my mother used to call it ‘Sweet-breath-of-spring,’” she said wistfully.

 

Feeling a bit foolish, and more than a little relieved, he finally understood that she wasn’t asking him to kiss her. She was simply discussing flowers. His racing heart began to calm down.

 

“Is your mother a florist?’ he asked trying not to chuckle at his mistake.

 

“She was a librarian, actually. But she dearly loved gardening and flowers, especially the ones that bloomed in early spring. Wherever did you find it? You smell as if you’ve been immersed in it.  Like you’ve been carrying it in your... You said you were walking in Central Park?”

 

She gasped and raised her head again to ‘look’ at him. “You haven’t been picking flowers in the park, have you?” she asked.

 

He shuddered inwardly. Even though her eyes were covered and he knew she was unable to see him, he felt as if she was looking into his very soul. For a blind woman she certainly sees a lot, he thought, it reminds me a little of someone else I know. He found it disconcerting.

 

When he hesitated, she gasped again and answered the question for him. “You have!” she said in mock horror.

 

“Yes, I have,” he confessed sheepishly, then quickly explained, “There’s a large section of the park, several acres in fact, that are neglected and overgrown. It appears to be fenced off to the public. For some reason it’s been left to grow wild. Sometimes I walk there late at night. I discovered the honeysuckle thriving there in a grove among the trees. It’s quite taken over that section. Mary loves it, and since it’s an unused section of the park, I didn’t think anyone would mind, so I brought her some. That’s what she calls it too... ‘Sweet-breath-of-spring.”

 

Laying her head back down, and drinking in its sweetness again, she asked, “Are you familiar with the language of flowers, Vincent?” her voice was beginning to fade. The fatigue she had been fighting for hours was finally winning the battle.

 

“No, I can’t say that I am. There isn’t much call for gardening down here.”

 

“Every spring when the flowers bloomed in our little garden, my mother would tell me their names and what they all meant…”

 

“And the Honeysuckle, what does it mean?”

 

“Honeysuckle is a symbol of the sweetness of a first love, a love that will never be forgotten,” she told him. “Mother used to say that, ‘Honeysuckle is a reminder that if you let love be free, it may return to you... that is... if it’s meant to be. [2] ’”

 

Again, Vincent was silent. He knew, all too well, what was meant to be and what was not meant to be for him. Her words cut him deeply, and yet he could detect no guile in her, no underlying intention to hurt him. She had no way of knowing that her innocent words held a deeper, painful meaning for him. At the same time he felt that somehow she was discerning his deepest secrets.

 

“I’ve made you uncomfortable, Vincent. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to... I...”

 

Vincent was quick to steer her thoughts in another direction.

 

“These aromas, Catherine, they... they please you?”

 

“They make me remember... sweet things.” She whispered drowsily. “They remind me of home.” She unconsciously nestled her bandaged head into the crook of his neck.

 

He carried her the rest of the way in thoughtful silence.

 

When they reached his chamber, he said, “I’m going to put you down now as gently as I can, Catherine. Let me know if you’re in pain. If you are, I can ask Father to give you something... Catherine?” When she didn’t respond, he realized that she had finally gone to sleep out of sheer exhaustion. Carefully placing her on the bed, he removed her slippers and covered her with a blanket and the crazy patched quilt that Mary had made for him.

 

“Sleep well, Catherine,” he whispered.

 

Satisfied that she would most likely sleep for several hours, he blew out the candles and left a small electric lamp on. He then turned to leave, but not before looking at her one more time.

 

Who is this stranger, he wondered, that can see into my very soul?

 

He was bewildered by this seemingly fragile, wounded woman, who was too stubborn to acknowledge her pain, doggedly determined to get stronger so that she could go home, and who, despite what some despicable men had done to her, trusted him enough to fall asleep in his arms.

 

Would she still trust me if she could see me? he wondered. If she could see what I really am? He hoped she would, but he wasn’t sure. She is a ‘topsider’ after all. And yet a small part of him still hoped.

 

Leaving her sleeping in his chamber, he knew that sleep, at least for now, would elude him. He needed to think.

 

Making his way through the quiet tunnels, he eventually found himself standing on the bridge in the Chamber of the Winds pondering the events of the evening.

 

 

 

 

He wondered why the book he was reading to Catherine, a book he had read so many times before, suddenly affected him so profoundly. It was as if he had never really understood true meaning of the words before, and suddenly a veil had been lifted from his eyes and he realized how much he had in common with the pitiable protagonist in the classic work.

 

As he stood there, he thought he could hear the painful passages echo in the wind…

“Love her, love her, love her. If she favors you, love her. If she wounds, you love her. If she tears your heart to pieces, -- and as you get older and stronger it will tear deeper, -- love her, love her, love her!’

The words swirled and tormented him until the wind suddenly shifted and they were whisked to some other part of the great cavern, and all he could hear was the soft swishing of the constantly changing currents.

 

And then it came again,

“I’ll tell you what real love is. It’s blind devotion, un-questioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter – as I did!”

Yes, he nodded.

 

Like Pip, he too, had done that once; given up his whole heart and soul to the smiter. It had almost killed him.

 

Until tonight, he thought he had buried those ancient, painful memories so deeply that they could never resurface. But there they were, nonetheless, before his mind’s eye.

 

Like Marley’s ghost, they had come, unbidden and without warning, as fresh and raw as the day they were made.

 

He could still hear the music as she danced only for him. He could still see her lovely, youthful face. And he could still see the fear in her eyes the moment she realized ... what he really was.

 

Pip’s words came whispering in the wind...

“… when I loved Estella with the love of a man, I loved her simply because I found her irresistible. Once for all; I knew to my sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against all discouragement that could be…”

Yes, Vincent nodded again. Yes, that is why I loved her, my ‘Estella’… with the love of a man... Because I simply found her irresistible. I did truly love her against reason, and it nearly destroyed me and the people that I love.”

 

Vincent had learned long ago, in that one, brief and terrible, forever irretrievable moment that he could never love anyone with the love of a “man”... For that is the one thing that he would never, and could never, be.

 

He had come to terms with that bitter reality long ago.

 

Why have these memories resurfaced now? he asked himself. Why am I suddenly wrestling with this again? After all this time...

 

It doesn’t matter, he thought obstinately.  I must bury them again... this time for good!

 

Resolving to do just that, Vincent shook himself as if to loosen the grip they had on him and stalked quickly back to the main tunnels, leaving the memories and the echoes swirling in Chamber of the Winds.

 

As he prepared for bed in the guest chamber nearest to Catherine, he removed his vest. He momentarily caught the scent of the Honeysuckle that still lingered there. Bringing the vest up to his nose, he breathed it in, much as she had done not even two hours before. He recalled her words...

 

‘Honeysuckle is a reminder that if you let love be free, it may return to you... that is... if it’s meant to be,” she had said…

 

“They make me remember... sweet things.” She’d whispered drowsily. “They remind me of home.”

He recalled the concerns she had expressed about herself as well.

 

“Sometimes I fear, that like Estella, I too may have no heart. Maybe I’m not capable of loving like that.”

 

Vincent seriously doubted that that was the case. He shook his head.

 

She is wrong, he concluded.  I have no doubt that she is indeed capable of loving like that. Whatever faults Catherine may have... having no heart, is definitely not one of them.

 

 

 

[1] Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

[2] The Honeysuckle flower symbolizes the flames of love and tenderness for an old flame, a first love, a love that will never be forgotten. Perhaps this love reappears in our life, for a time or to stay. Like the wings of a butterfly, Honeysuckle sings the song of sweet love and reminds us that if you let love be free it will return to you if it is meant to be. (http://www.universeofsymbolism.com/flower-symbolism-page-two.html)

 


 

~

 

Illustrations (but the last one) supplied by the author

 

 

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