Born in Exile
Part the Second[I] [II] [III] [IV]
In the spring of 1882 Mr Jarvis Runcorn, editor and co-proprietor of the London Weekly Post, was looking about for a young man of journalistic promise whom he might associate with himself in the conduct of that long established Radical paper. The tale of his years warned him that he could not hope to support much longer a burden which necessarily increased with the growing range and complexity of public affairs. Hitherto he had been the autocrat of the office, but competing Sunday papers exacted an alertness, a versatile vigour, such as only youth can supply; for there was felt to be a danger that the Weekly Post might lose its prestige in democratic journalism. Thus on the watch, Mr Runcorn -- a wary man of business, who had gone through many trades before he reached that of weekly literature -- took counsel one day with a fellow-campaigner, Malkin by name, who owned two or three country newspapers, and had reaped from them a considerable fortune; in consequence, his attention was directed to one John Earwaker, then editing the Wattleborough Courier. Mr Malkin's eldest son had recently stood as Liberal candidate for Wattleborough, and though defeated was loud in his praise of the Courier; with its editor he had come to be on terms of intimate friendship. Earwaker was well acquainted with journalistic life in the provinces. He sprang from a humble family living at Kingsmill, had studied at Whitelaw College, and was now but nine-and-twenty: the style of his 'leaders' seemed to mark him for a wider sphere of work. It was decided to invite him to London, and the young man readily accepted Mr Runcorn's proposals. A few months later he exchanged temporary lodgings for chambers in Staple Inn, where he surrounded himself with plain furniture and many books.
In personal appearance he had changed a good deal since that prize-day at Whitelaw when his success as versifier and essayist foretold a literary career. His figure was no longer ungainly; the big head seemed to fit better upon the narrow shoulders. He neither walked with extravagant paces, nor waved his arms like a windmill. A sufficiency of good food, and the habit of intercourse with active men; had given him an every-day aspect; perhaps the sole peculiarity he retained from student times was his hollow chuckle of mirth, a laugh which struggled vainly for enlargement. He dressed with conventional decency, even submitting to the chimney-pot hat. His features betrayed connection with a physically coarse stock; but to converse with him was to discover the man of original vigour and wide intellectual scope. With ordinary companions, it was a rare thing for him to speak of his professional interests. But for his position on The Weekly Post it would not have been easy to surmise how he stood with regard to politics, and he appeared to lean as often towards the conservative as to the revolutionary view of abstract questions.
The newspaper left him time for other literary work, and it was known to a few people that he wrote with some regularity for reviews, but all the products of his pen were anonymous. A fact which remained his own secret was that he provided for the subsistence of his parents, old people domiciled in a quiet corner of their native Kingsmill. The strict sobriety of life which is indispensable to success in such a career as this cost him no effort. He smoked moderately, ate and drank as little as might be, could keep his health on six hours of sleep, and for an occasional holiday liked to walk his twenty or thirty miles. Earwaker was naturally marked for survival among the fittest.
On an evening of June in the year '84, he was interrupted whilst equipping himself for dinner abroad, by a thunderous rat-tat-tat.
'You must wait, my friend, whoever you are,' he murmured placidly, as he began to struggle with the stiff button-holes of his shirt.
The knock was repeated, and more violently.
'Now there's only one man of my acquaintance who knocks like that,' he mused, elaborating the bow of his white tie. 'He, I should imagine, is in Brazil; but there's no knowing. Perhaps our office is on fire. - Anon, anon!'
He made haste to don waistcoat and swallow-tail, then crossed his sitting-room and flung open the door of the chambers.
'Ha! Then it is you! I was reminded of your patient habits.'
A tall man, in a light overcoat and a straw hat of spacious brim, had seized both his hands, with shouts of excited greeting.
'Confound you! Why did you keep me waiting? I thought I had missed you for the evening. How the deuce are you? And why the devil have you left me without a line from you for more than six months?'
Earwaker drew aside, and allowed his tumultuous friend to rush into the nearest room.
'Why haven't you written? -- confound you!' was again vociferated, amid bursts of boyish laughter. 'Why hasn't anybody written?'
'If everybody was as well informed of your movements as I, I don't wonder,' replied the journalist. 'Since you left Buenos Ayres, I have had two letters, each containing twenty words, which gave me to understand that no answer could by possibility reach you.'
'Humbug! You could have written to half-a-dozen likely places. Did I really say that? Ha, ha, ha! -- Shake hands again, confound you! How do you do? Do I look well? Have I a tropical colour? I say, what a blessed thing it was that I got beaten down at Wattleborough! All this time I should have been sitting in the fog at Westminster. What a time I've had! What a time I've had!'
It was more than twelve months since Malkin's departure from England. Though sun and sea had doubtless contributed to his robustness, he must always have been a fair example of the vigorous Briton. His broad shoulders, upright bearing, open countenance, and frank resonant voice, declared a youth passed amid the wholesome conditions which wealth alone can command. The hearty extravagance of his friendliness was only possible in a man who has never been humiliated by circumstances, never restricted in his natural needs of body and mind. Yet he had more than the heartiness of a contented Englishman. The vivacity which made a whirlwind about him probably indicated some ancestral mingling with the blood of a more ardent race. Earwaker examined him with a smile of pleasure.
'It's unfortunate,' he said, 'that I have to go out to dinner.'
'Dinner! Pooh! we can get dinner anywhere.'
'No doubt, hut I am engaged.'
'The devil you are! Who is she? Why didn't you write to tell me?'
'The word has a less specific meaning, my dear fellow,' replied Earwaker, laughing. 'Only you of all men would have rushed at the wrong one. I mean to say -- if your excitement can take in so common a fact -- that I have promised to dine with some people at Notting Hill, and mustn't disappoint them.'
Malkin laughed at his mistake, then shouted:
'Notting Hill! Isn't that somewhere near Fulham? We'll take a cab, and I can drop you on my way.'
'It wouldn't be on the way at all.'
The journalist's quiet explanation was cut short by a petulant outcry.
'Oh, very well! Of course if you want to get rid of me! I should have thought after sixteen months' --
'Don't be idiotic,' broke in the other. 'There's a strong feminine element in you, Malkin; that's exactly the kind of talk with which women drive men to frenzy.'
'Feminine element!' shouted the traveller with hot face. 'What do you mean? I propose to take a cab with you, and you' --
Earwaker turned away laughing. 'Time and distance are nothing to you, and I shall be very glad of your company. Come by all means.'
His friend was instantly appeased.
'Don't let me make you late, Earwaker. Must we start this moment? Come along, then. Can I carry anything for you? Lord! if you could only see a tropical forest! How do you get on with old Runcorn? Write? What the devil was the use of my writing, when words are powerless to describe --? What a rum old place this seems, after experiences like mine; how the deuce can you live here? I say, I've brought you a ton of curiosities; will make your rooms look like a museum. Confound it! I've broken my shin against the turn in the staircase! Whew! Who are you going to dine with? -- Moxey? Never heard the name.'
In Holborn a hansom was hailed, and the friends continued their dialogue as they drove westward. Having at length effervesced, Malkin began to exchange question and answer with something of the calm needful for mutual intelligibility.
'And how do you get on with old Runcorn?'
'As well as can be expected where there is not a single subject of agreement,' Earwaker replied. 'I have hopes of reducing our circulation.'
'What the deuce do you mean?'
'In other words, of improving the paper. Runcorn is strong on the side of blackguardism. We had a great fight the other day over a leader offered by Kenyon, -- a true effusion of the political gutter-snipe. I refused point-blank to let it go in; Runcorn swore that, if I did not, I should go out. I offered to retire that moment. "We must write for our public," he bellowed. "True," said I, "but not necessarily for the basest among them. The standard at the best is low enough." "Do you call yourself a Radical?" "Not if this be Radicalism." "You ought to be on the Morning instead of the Weekly Post." I had my way, and probably shall end by sending Mr Kenyon back to his tinker's work shop. If not, I must look out for cleaner occupation.'
'Go it, my boy! Go it!' cried Malkin, slapping his companion's knee violently. 'Raise the tone! To the devil with mercenary considerations! Help the proletariat out of its grovelling position.'
They approached the street where Earwaker had to alight. The other declared his intention of driving on to Fulham in the hope of finding a friend who lived there.
'But I must see you again. When shall you be home to-night?'
'About half-past eleven, I dare say.'
'Right! If I am free I'll come out to Staple Inn, and we'll talk till three or four.'
The house at which the journalist presented himself was such as might be inhabited by a small family of easy means. As he was taking off his overcoat, a door opened and Christian Moxey came forward to greet him. They shook hands like men who stood on friendly, but not exactly on intimate, terms.
'Will you come up to the laboratory for a moment?' said Moxey. 'I should like to show you something I have under the microscope.'
The room he spoke of was at the top of the house; two chambers had been made into one, and the fittings were those required by a student of physical science. Various odours distressed the air. A stranger to the pursuits represented might have thought that the general disorder and encumberment indicated great activity, but the experienced eye perceived at once that no methodical work was here in progress. Mineralogy, botany, biology, physics, and probably many other sciences, were suggested by the specimens and apparatus that lay confusedly on tables, shelves, or floor.
Moxey looked very slim and elegant in his evening costume. When he touched any object, his long, translucent fingers seemed soft and sensitive as a girl's. He stepped with peculiar lightness, and the harmonious notes of his voice were in keeping with these other characteristics. Ten years had developed in him that graceful languor which at four-and-twenty was only beginning to get mastery over the energies of a well-built frame.
'This stuff here,' he said, pointing to an open box full of mud, 'is silt from down the Thames. It's positively loaded with diatomaceoe, -- you remember our talking about them when you were last here? I am working at the fabric of the valves. Now, just look!'
Earwaker, with attentive smile, followed the demonstration.
'Peak is busy with them as well,' said Christian, presently. 'Has he told you his theory of their locomotion? Nobody has found out yet how the little beggars move about. Peak has a bright idea.'
They spent ten minutes in the laboratory, then went downstairs. Two other guests had meanwhile arrived, and were conversing with the hostess, Miss Moxey. The shy, awkward, hard-featured girl was grown into a woman whose face made such declaration of intellect and character that, after the first moment, one became indifferent to its lack of feminine beauty. As if with the idea of compensating for personal disadvantages, she was ornately dressed; her abundant tawny hair had submitted to much manipulation, and showed the gleam of jewels; expense and finished craft were manifest in every detail of her garb. Though slightly round-shouldered, her form was well-proportioned and suggested natural vigour. Like Christian, she had delicate hands.
'Do you know a distinguished clergyman, named Chilvers?' she asked of Earwaker, with a laugh, when he had taken a place by her.
'Chilvers? -- Is it Bruno Chilvers, I wonder?'
'That's the name!' exclaimed one of the guests, a young married lady of eager face and fidgety manners.
'Then I knew him at College, but I had no idea he was become distinguished.'
Miss Moxey again laughed.
'Isn't it amusing, the narrowness of a great clerical reputation? Mrs Morton was astonished that I had never heard his name.'
'Please don't think,' appealed the lady, looking anxiously at Earwaker, 'that I consider it shameful not to know him. I only happened to mention a very ridiculous sermon of his, that was forced upon me by a distressingly orthodox friend of mine. They tell me, he is one of the newest lights of the Church.'
Earwaker listened with amusement, and then related anecdotes of Bruno Chilvers. Whilst he was talking, the door opened to admit another arrival, and a servant's voice announced 'Mr Peak'. Miss Moxey rose, and moved a step or two forward; a change was visible on her countenance, which had softened and lightened.
'I am very sorry to be late,' said the new-comer, in a dull and rather husky voice, which made strong contrast with the humorous tones his entrance had interrupted.
He shook hands in silence with the rest of the company, giving merely a nod and a smile as reply to some gracious commonplace from Mrs Morton.
'Has it come to your knowledge,' Earwaker asked of him, 'that Bruno Chilvers is exciting the orthodox world by his defence of Christianity against neo-heathenism?'
'Chilvers? -- No.'
'Mrs Morton tells us that all the Church newspapers ring with his name.'
'Please don't think,' cried Mrs Morton, with the same anxious look as before, 'that I read such papers. We never have such a thing in our house, Mr Peak. I have only been told about it.'
Peak smiled gravely, but made no other answer. Then he turned to Earwaker.
'Where is he?'
'I can't say. Perhaps Mrs Morton' --
'They tell me he is somewhere in Norfolk,' replied the lady. 'I forget the town.'
A summons to dinner broke off the conversation. Moxey offered his arm to the one lady present as guest, and Earwaker did the same courtesy to the hostess. Mr Morton, a meditative young man who had been listening with a smile of indifference, sauntered along in the rear with Godwin Peak.
At the dinner-table Peak was taciturn, and seemed to be musing on a disagreeable subject. To remarks, he answered briefly and absently. As Moxey, Earwaker, and Mrs Morton kept up lively general talk, this muteness was not much noticed, but when the ladies had left the room, and Peak still frowned over his wineglass, the journalist rebuked him.
'What's the matter with you? Don't depress us.'
The other laughed impatiently, and emptied his glass.
'Malkin has come back,' pursued Earwaker. 'He burst in upon me, just as I was leaving home -- as mad as a March hare. You must come and meet him some evening.'
'As you please.'
Returned to the upper room, Peak seated himself in a shadowy corner, crossed his legs, thrust his hands into his pockets, and leaned back to regard a picture on the wall opposite. This attitude gave sufficient proof of the change that had been wrought in him by the years between nineteen and nine-and-twenty; even in a drawing-room, he could take his ease unconcernedly. His face would have led one to suppose him an older man; it was set in an expression of stern, if not morose, thoughtfulness.
He had small, hard lips, indifferent teeth (seldom exhibited), a prominent chin, a long neck; his body was of firm, not ungraceful build. Society's evening uniform does not allow a man much scope in the matter of adornments; it was plain, however, that Godwin no longer scorned the tailor and haberdasher. He wore a suit which confidently challenged the criticism of experts, and the silk socks visible above his shoes might have been selected by the most fastidious of worldlings.
When he had sat there for some minutes, his eyes happened to stray towards Miss Moxey, who was just then without a companion. Her glance answered to his, and a smile of invitation left him no choice but to rise and go to a seat beside her.
'You are meditative this evening,' she said, in a voice subdued below its ordinary note.
'Not very fit for society, to tell the truth,' Godwin answered, carelessly. 'One has such moods, you know. But how would you take it if, at the last moment, I sent a telegram, "Please excuse me. Don't feel able to talk"?'
'You don't suppose I should be offended?'
'Certainly you would.'
'Then you know less of me than I thought.'
Her eyes wandered about the room, their smile betokening an uneasy self-consciousness.
'Christian tells me,' she continued, 'that you are going to take your holiday in Cornwall.'
'I thought of it. But perhaps I shan't leave town at all. It wouldn't be worth while, if I go abroad at the end of the year.'
'Abroad?' Marcella glanced at him. 'What scheme is that?'
'Haven't I mentioned it? I want to go to South America and the Pacific islands. Earwaker has a friend, who has just come back from travel in the tropics; the talk about it has half decided me to leave England. I have been saving money for years to that end.'
'You never spoke of it -- to me, Marcella replied, turning a bracelet on her wrist. 'Should you go alone?'
'Of course. I couldn't travel in company. You know how impossible it would be for me to put up with the moods and idiosyncrasies of other men.'
There was a quiet arrogance in his tone. The listener still smiled, but her fingers worked nervously.
'You are not so unsocial as you pretend,' she remarked, without looking at him.
'Pretend! I make no pretences of any kind,' was his scornful answer.
'You are ungracious this evening.'
'Yes -- and can't hide it.'
'Don't try to, I beg. But at least tell me what troubles you.'
'That's impossible,' Peak replied, drily.
'Then friendship goes for nothing,' said Marcella, with a little forced laugh.
'Yes -- in all but a very few human concerns. How often could you tell me what it is that prevents your taking life cheerfully?'
He glanced at her, and Marcella's eyes fell; a moment after, there was a suspicion of colour in her cheek.
'What are you reading?' Peak asked abruptly, but in a voice of more conventional note.
'I envy your power of abstraction.'
'Yet I hear that you are deeply concerned about the locomotive powers of the diatomaceaoe?'
Their eyes met, and they laughed -- not very mirthfully.
'It preserves me from worse follies,' said Peak. 'After all, there are ways more or less dignified of consuming time' --
As he spoke, his ear caught a familiar name, uttered by Christian Moxey, and he turned to listen. Moxey and Earwaker were again talking of the Rev. Bruno Chilvers. Straightway disregarding Marcella, Peak gave attention to the men's dialogue, and his forehead wrinkled into scornful amusement.
'It's very interesting,' he exclaimed, at a moment when there was silence throughout the company, 'to hear that Chilvers is really coming to the front. At Whitelaw it used to be prophesied that he would be a bishop, and now I suppose he's fairly on the way to that. Shall we write letters of congratulation to him, Earwaker?'
'A joint epistle, if you like.'
Mr Morton, who had brightened since dinner, began to speak caustically of the form of intellect necessary nowadays in a popular clergyman.
'He must write a good deal,' put in Earwaker, 'and that in a style which would have scandalised the orthodox of the last century. Rationalised dogma is vastly in demand.'
Peak's voice drew attention.
'Two kinds of books dealing with religion are now greatly popular, and will be for a long time. On the one hand there is that growing body of people who, for whatever reason, tend to agnosticism, but desire to be convinced that agnosticism is respectable; they are eager for anti-dogmatic books, written by men of mark. They couldn't endure to be classed with Bradlaugh, but they rank themselves confidently with Darwin and Huxley. Arguments matter little or nothing to them. They take their rationalism as they do a fashion in dress, anxious only that it shall be "good form". Then there's the other lot of people -- a much larger class -- who won't give up dogma, but have learnt that bishops, priests, and deacons no longer hold it with the old rigour, and that one must be "broad"; these are clamorous for treatises which pretend to reconcile revelation and science. It's quite pathetic to watch the enthusiasm with which they hail any man who distinguishes himself by this kind of apologetic skill, this pious jugglery. Never mind how washy the book from a scientific point of view. Only let it obtain vogue, and it will be glorified as the new evangel. The day has gone by for downright assaults on science; to be marketable, you must prove that The Origin of Species was approvingly foreseen in the first chapter of Genesis, and that the Apostles' Creed conflicts in no single point with the latest results of biblical criticism. Both classes seek to avoid ridicule, and to adapt themselves to a standard of respectability. If Chilvers goes in for the newest apologetics, he is bound to be enormously successful. The man has brains, and really there are so few such men who still care to go into the Church.'
There was a murmur of laughing approval. The speaker had worked himself into eloquent nervousness; he leaned forward with his hands straining together, and the muscles of his face quivering.
'And isn't it surprising,' said Marcella, 'in how short a time this apologetic attitude has become necessary?'
Peak flashed a triumphant look at her.
'I often rejoice to think of it!' he cried. 'How magnificent it is that so many of the solemn jackasses who brayed against Darwin from ten to twenty years ago should live to be regarded as beneath contempt! I say it earnestly: this thought is one of the things that make life tolerable to me!'
'You have need of charity, friend Peak,' interposed Earwaker. 'This is the spirit of the persecutor.'
'Nothing of the kind! It is the spirit of justified reason. You may say that those people were honestly mistaken; -- such honesty is the brand of a brainless obstructive. They would have persecuted, but too gladly! There were, and are, men who would have committed Darwin to penal servitude, if they had had the power. Men like Lyell, who were able to develop a new convolution in their brains, I respect heartily. I only speak of the squalling mass, the obscene herd of idiot mockers.'
'Who assuredly,' remarked Earwaker, 'feel no shame whatever in the retrospect of their idiocy. To convert a mind is a subject for high rejoicing; to confute a temper isn't worth the doing.'
'That is philosophy,' said Marcella, 'but I suspect you of often feeling as Mr Peak does. I am sure I do.'
Peak, meeting an amused glance from the journalist, left his seat and took up a volume that lay on one of the tables. It was easy to see that his hands shook, and that there was perspiration on his forehead. With pleasant tact, Moxey struck into a new subject, and for the next quarter of an hour Peak sat apart in the same attitude as before his outburst of satire and invective. Then he advanced to Miss Moxey again, for the purpose of taking leave. This was the signal for Earwaker's rising, and in a few minutes both men had left the house.
'I'll go by train with you,' said Earwaker, as they walked away. 'Farringdon Street will suit me well enough.'
Peak vouchsafed no reply, but, when they had proceeded a little distance, he exclaimed harshly:
'I hate emancipated women!'
His companion stopped and laughed loudly.
'Yes, I hate emancipated women,' the other repeated, with deliberation. 'Women ought neither to be enlightened nor dogmatic. They ought to be sexual.'
'That's unusual brutality on your part.'
'Well, you know what I mean.'
'I know what you think you mean,' said Earwaker. 'But the woman who is neither enlightened nor dogmatic is only too common in society. They are fools, and troublesome fools.'
Peak again kept silence.
'The emancipated woman,' pursued his friend, 'needn't be a Miss Moxey, nor yet a Mrs Morton.'
'Miss Moxey is intolerable,' said Peak. 'I can't quite say why I dislike her so, but she grows more antipathetic to me the better I know her. She has not a single feminine charm -- not one. I often feel very sorry for her, but dislike her all the same.'
'Sorry for her,' mused Earwaker. 'Yes, so do I. I can't like her either. She is certainly an incomplete woman. But her mind is of no low order. I had rather talk with her than with one of the imbecile prettinesses. I half believe you have a sneaking sympathy with the men who can't stand education in a wife.'
'It's possible. In some moods.'
'In no mood can I conceive such a prejudice. I have no great attraction to women of any kind, but the uneducated woman I detest.'
'Well, so do I,' muttered Peak. 'Do you know what?' he added, abruptly. 'I shall be off to the Pacific. Yes, I shall go this next winter. My mind is made up.'
'I shan't try to dissuade you, old fellow, though I had rather have you in sight. Come and see Malkin. I'll drop you a note with an appointment.'
They soon reached the station, and exchanged but few more words before Earwaker's leaving the train at Farringdon Street. Peak pursued his journey towards the south-east of London.
On reaching home, the journalist flung aside his foolish coat of ceremony, indued a comfortable jacket, lit a pipe with long stem, and began to glance over an evening newspaper. He had not long reposed in his arm-chair when the familiar appeal thundered from without. Malkin once more shook his hand effusively.
'Had my journey to Fulham for nothing. Didn't matter; I ran over to Putney and looked up my old landlady. The rooms are occupied by a married couple, but I think we shall succeed in persuading them to make way for me. I promised to find them lodgings every bit as good in two days' time.'
'If that is so easy, why not take the new quarters yourself?'
'Why, to tell you the truth, I didn't think of it! -- Oh, I had rather have the old crib; I can do as I like there, you know. Confound it! Now I shall have to spend all to-morrow lodging-hunting for other people. Couldn't I pay a man to do it? Some confidential agent -- private police -- you know what I mean?'
'A man of any delicacy,' replied Earwaker, with grave countenance, 'would feel bound by such a promise to personal exertion.'
'Right; quite right! I didn't mean it; of course I shall hunt conscientiously. Oh, I say; I have brought over a couple of armadilloes. Would you like one?'
'Stuffed, do you mean?'
'Pooh! Alive, man, alive! They only need a little care. I should think you might keep the creature in your kitchen; they become quite affectionate.'
The offer was unhesitatingly declined, and Malkin looked hurt. There needed a good deal of genial explanation before Earwaker could restore him to his sprightly mood.
'Where have you been dining?' cried the traveller. 'Moxey's -- ah, I remember. But who is Moxey? A new acquaintance, eh?'
'Yes; I have known him about six months. Got to know him through Peak.'
'Peak? Peak? What, the fellow you once told me about -- who disappeared from Whitelaw because of his uncle, the cat's-meat man?'
'The man's-meat man, rather.'
'Yes, yes -- the eating-house; I remember. You have met him again? Why on earth didn't you tell me in your letters? What became of him? Tell me the story.'
'Certainly, if you will cease to shake down plaster from the ceiling. -- We met in a restaurant (appropriate scene), happening to sit at the same table. Whilst eating, we stared at each other fitfully. "I'll be hanged if that isn't Peak," I kept saying to myself. And at the same moment we opened our lips to question each other.'
'Just the same thing happened once to a friend of mine and a friend of his. But it was on board ship, and both were devilish seasick. Walker -- you remember my friend Walker? -- tells the story in a side-splitting way. I wonder what has become of Walker? The last time I met him he was travelling agent for a menagerie -- a most interesting fellow, Walker. -- But I beg your pardon. Go on, old fellow!'
'Well, after that we at once saw a good deal of each other. He has been working for years at a chemical factory down on the river; Moxey used to be there, and got him the place.'
'Moxey? -- Oh yes, the man you dined with. You must remember that these are new names to me. I must know all these new people, I say. You don't mind?'
'You shall be presented to the whole multitude, as soon as you like. Peak wants to see you. He thinks of an excursion like this last of yours.'
'He does? By Jove, we'll go together! I have always wanted a travelling companion. We'll start as soon as ever he likes! -- well, in a month or two. I must just have time to look round. Oh, I haven't done with the tropics yet! I must tell him of a rattling good insect-powder I have invented; I think of patenting it. I say, how does one get a patent? Quite a simple matter, I suppose?'
'Oh, always has been. The simplest and least worrying of all business enterprises.'
'What? Eh? That smile of yours means mischief.'
In a quarter of an hour they had got back to the subject of Peak's history.
'And did he really run away because of the eating-house?' Malkin inquired.
'I shall never venture to ask, and it's not very likely he will admit it. It was some time before he cared to talk much of Whitelaw.'
'But what is he doing? You used to think he would come out strong, didn't you? Has he written anything?'
'A few things in The Liberator, five or six years ago.'
'What, the atheistic paper?'
'Yes. But he's ashamed of it now. That belongs to a bygone stage of development.'
'I only mean that he is ashamed of the connection with street-corner rationalism.'
'Quite right. Devilish low, that kind of thing. But I went in for it myself once. Did I ever tell you that I debated with a parson on Mile-end Waste? Fact! That was in my hot-headed days. A crowd of coster-mongers applauded me in the most flattering way. -- I say, Earwaker, you haven't any whisky?'
'Forgive me; your conversation makes me forget hospitality. Shall I make hot water? I have a spirit-kettle.'
'Cold for me. I get in such a deuced perspiration when I begin to talk. -- Try this tobacco; the last of half a hundred-weight I took in at Bahia.'
The traveller refreshed himself with a full tumbler, and resumed the conversation cheerily.
'Has he just been wasting his time, then, all these years?'
'He goes in for science -- laboratory work, evolutionary speculations. Of course I can't judge his progress in such matters; but Moxey, a clever man in the same line, thinks very highly of him.'
'Just the fellow to travel with. I want to get hold of some solid scientific ideas, but I haven't the patience to work steadily. A confounded fault of mine, you know, Earwaker, -- want of patience. You must have noticed it?'
'Oh -- well, now and then, perhaps.'
'Yes, yes; but of course I know myself better. And now tell me about Moxey. A married man, of course?'
'No, lives with a sister.'
'Unmarried sister? -- Brains?'
'Pretty well supplied with that commodity.'
'You must introduce me to her. I do like women with brains. -- Orthodox or enlightened?'
'Really? Magnificent! Oh, I must know her. Nothing like an emancipated woman! How any man can marry the ordinary female passes my understanding. What do you think?'
'My opinions are in suspense; not yet precipitated, as Peak might say.'
One o'clock sounded from neighbouring churches, but Malkin was wide awake as ever. He entered upon a detailed narrative of his travels, delightful to listen to, so oddly blended were the strains of conscious and unconscious humour which marked his personality. Two o'clock; three o'clock; -- he would have talked till breakfast-time, but at last Earwaker declared that the hour had come for sleep. As Malkin had taken a room at the Inns of Court Hotel, it was easy for him to repair to his quarters. The last his friend heard of him was an unexplained laugh, echoing far down the staircase.
Peak's destination was Peckham Rye. On quitting the railway, he had a walk of some ten minutes along a road which smelt of new bricks and stucco heated by the summer sun; an obscure passage led him into a street partly of dwelling-houses, partly of shops, the latter closed. He paused at the side door of one over which the street lamp dimly revealed -- 'Button, Herbalist'.
His latch-key admitted him to total darkness, but he moved forward with the confidence of long use. He softly ascended two flights of stairs, opened a door, struck a match, and found himself in a comfortable sitting-room, soon illumined by a reading-lamp. The atmosphere, as throughout the house, was strongly redolent of dried simples. Anyone acquainted with the characteristics of furnished lodgings must have surmised that Peak dwelt here among his own moveables, and was indebted to the occupier of the premises for bare walls alone; the tables and chairs, though plain enough, were such as civilisation permits; and though there were no pictures, sundry ornaments here and there made strong denial of lodging-house affinity. It was at once laboratory, study, and dwelling-room. Two large cabinets, something the worse for transportation, alone formed a link between this abode and the old home at Twybridge. Books were not numerous, and a good microscope seemed to be the only scientific instrument of much importance. On door-pegs hung a knapsack, a botanist's vasculum, and a geologist's wallet.
A round table was spread with the materials of supper, and here again an experienced lodger must have bestowed contemplative scrutiny, for no hand of common landlady declared itself in the arrangement. The cloth was spotless, the utensils tasteful and carefully disposed. In a bowl lay an appetising salad, ready for mingling; a fragment of Camembert cheese was relieved upon a setting of green leafage; a bottle of ale, with adjacent corkscrew, stood beside the plate; the very loaf seemed to come from no ordinary baker's, or was made to look better than its kin by the fringed white cloth in which it nestled.
The custom of four years had accustomed Peak to take these things as a matter of course, yet he would readily have admitted that they were extraordinary enough. Indeed, he even now occasionally contrasted this state of comfort with the hateful experiences of his first six years in London. The subject of lodgings was one of those on which (often intemperate of speech) he spoke least temperately. For six years he had shifted from quarter to quarter, from house to house, driven away each time by the hateful contact of vulgarity in every form, -- by foulness and dishonesty, by lying, slandering, quarrelling, by drunkenness, by brutal vice, -- by all abominations that distinguish the lodging-letter of the metropolis. Obliged to practise extreme economy, he could not take refuge among self-respecting people, or at all events had no luck in endeavouring to find such among the poorer working-class. To a man of Godwin's idiosyncrasy the London poor were of necessity abominable, and it anguished him to be forced to live among them.
Rescue came at last, and in a very unexpected way. Resident in the more open part of Bermondsey (winter mornings made a long journey to Rotherhithe intolerable), he happened to walk one day as far as Peckham Rye, and was there attracted by the shop window of a herbalist. He entered to make a purchase, and got into conversation with Mr Button, a middle-aged man of bright intelligence and more reading than could be expected. The herbalist led his customer to an upper room, in which were stored sundry curiosities, and happened casually to say that he was desirous of finding a lodger for two superfluous chambers. Peak's inquiries led to his seeing Mrs Button, whom he found to be a Frenchwoman of very pleasing appearance; she spoke fluent French-English, anything but disagreeable to an ear constantly tormented by the London vernacular. After short reflection he decided to take and furnish the rooms. It proved a most fortunate step, for he lived (after the outlay for furniture) at much less expense than theretofore, and in comparative luxury. Cleanliness, neatness, good taste by no means exhausted Mrs Button's virtues; her cooking seemed to the lodger of incredible perfection, and the infinite goodwill with which he was tended made strange contrast with the base usage he had commonly experienced.
In these ten years he had paid but four visits to Twybridge, each of brief duration. Naturally there were changes among his kinsfolk: Charlotte, after an engagement which prolonged itself to the fifth twelvemonth, had become Mrs Cusse, and her husband now had a draper's shop of his own, with two children already born into the world of draperdom. Oliver, twice fruitlessly affianced, had at length (when six-and-twenty) wedded a young person whom his mother and his aunt both regarded as a most undesirable connection, the daughter (aged thirty-two) of a man who was drinking himself to death on such money as he could earn by casual reporting for a Twybridge newspaper. Mrs Peak the elder now abode with her sister at the millinery shop, and saw little of her two married children. With Oliver and Charlotte their brother had no sympathy, and affected none; he never wrote to them, nor they to him; but years had strengthened his regard for his mother, and with her he had fairly regular correspondence. Gladly he would have seen her more often, but the air of shopkeeping he was compelled to breathe when he visited Twybridge nauseated and repelled him. He recognised the suitability both of Oliver and Charlotte for the positions to which life had consigned them -- they suffered from no profitless aspiration; but it seemed to him a just cause of quarrel with fate that his kindred should thus have relapsed, instead of bettering the rank their father had bequeathed to them. He would not avow to such friends as Moxey and Earwaker the social standing of his only recognised relatives.
As for the unrecognised, he had long ago heard with some satisfaction that Andrew Peak, having ultimately failed in his Kingsmill venture, returned to London. Encounter with the fatal Andrew had been spared him ever since that decisive day when Master Jowey Peak recited from Coleridge and displayed his etymological genius.
For himself, he had earned daily bread, and something more; he had studied in desultory fashion; he had seen a good deal of the British Isles and had visited Paris. The result of it all was gnawing discontent, intervals of furious revolt, periods of black despair.
He had achieved nothing, and he was alone.
Young still, to be sure; at twenty-nine it is too early to abandon ambitions which are supported by force of brain and of will. But circumstances must needs help if the desires of his soul were to be attained. On first coming to London, received with all friendliness by Christian Moxey, he had imagined that it only depended upon himself to find admission before long to congenial society -- by which he then understood the companionship of intelligent and aspiring young men. Christian, however, had himself no such circle, and knew that the awkward lad from Twybridge could not associate with the one or two wealthy families to which he could have presented him. The School of Mines was only technically useful; it helped Godwin to get his place with Bates & Sons, but supplied no friendships. In the third year, Moxey inherited means and left the chemical works for continental travel.
By tormenting attraction Godwin was often led to walk in the wealthy districts of London. Why was no one of these doors open to him? There were his equals; not in the mean streets where he dwelt. There were the men of culture and capacity, the women of exquisite person and exalted mind. Was he the inferior of such people? By heaven, no!
He chanced once to be in Hyde Park on the occasion of some public ceremony, and was brought to pause at the edge of a gaping plebeian crowd, drawn up to witness the passing of aristocratic vehicles. Close in front of him an open carriage came to a stop; in it sat, or rather reclined, two ladies, old and young. Upon this picture Godwin fixed his eyes with the intensity of fascination; his memory never lost the impress of these ladies' faces. Nothing very noteworthy about them; but to Godwin they conveyed a passionate perception of all that is implied in social superiority. Here he stood, one of the multitude, of the herd; shoulder to shoulder with boors and pick-pockets; and within reach of his hand reposed those two ladies, in Olympian calm, seeming unaware even of the existence of the throng. Now they exchanged a word; now they smiled to each other. How delicate was the moving of their lips! How fine must be their enunciation! On the box sat an old coachman and a young footman; they too were splendidly impassive, scornful of the multitudinous gaze. -- The block was relieved, and on the carriage rolled.
They were his equals, those ladies, merely his equals. With such as they he should by right of nature associate.
In his rebellion, he could not hate them. He hated the malodorous rabble who stared insolently at them and who envied their immeasurable remoteness. Of mere wealth he thought not; might he only be recognised by the gentle of birth and breeding for what he really was, and be rescued from the promiscuity of the vulgar!
Yet at this time he was drawn into connection with the movement of popular Radicalism which revolts against religious respectability. Inherited antipathy to all conventional forms of faith outweighed his other prejudices so far as to induce him to write savage papers for The Liberator. Personal contact with artisan freethinkers was disgusting to him. From the meeting of emancipated workmen he went away with scorn and detestation in his heart; but in the quiet of his lodgings he could sit down to aid their propaganda. One explanation of this inconsistency lay in the fact that no other channel was open to his literary impulses. Pure science could not serve him, for he had no original results to announce. Pure literature seemed beyond his scope, yet he was constantly endeavouring to express himself. He burned with the desire of fame, and saw no hope of achieving it save as an author. The Liberator would serve him as a first step. In time he might get foothold in the monthly reviews, and see his name side by side with those of the leaders of thought.
Occasions, of course, offered when he might have extended his acquaintance, but they were never of a kind that he cared to use; at best they would only have admitted him to the homes of decent, semi-educated families, and for such society he was altogether unfitted. The licence of the streets but seldom allured him. After his twenty-fourth year he was proof against the decoys of venal pleasure, and lived a life of asceticism exceedingly rare in young and lonely men. When Christian Moxey returned to London and took the house at Notting Hill, which he henceforth occupied together with his sister, a possibility of social intercourse at length appeared. Indeed it was a substantial gain to sit from time to time at a civilised table, and to converse amid graceful surroundings with people who at all events followed the intellectual current of the day. Careless hitherto of his personal appearance, he now cultivated an elegance of attire in conformity with his aristocratic instincts, and this habit became fixed. When next he visited Twybridge, the change in his appearance was generally remarked. Mrs Peak naturally understood it as a significant result of his intercourse with Miss Moxey, of whom, as it seemed to her, he spoke with singular reticence.
But Marcella had no charm for Godwin's imagination, notwithstanding that he presently suspected a warmth of interest on her side which he was far from consciously encouraging. Nor did he find among his friends any man or woman for whose acquaintance he greatly cared. The Moxeys had a very small circle, consisting chiefly of intellectual inferiors. Christian was too indolent to make a figure in society, and his sister suffered from peculiarities of mind and temperament which made it as difficult for her as for Peak himself to form intimate friendships.
When chance encounter brought him into connection with Earwaker, the revival of bygone things was at first doubtfully pleasant. Earwaker himself, remarkably developed and become a very interesting man, was as welcome an associate as he could have found, but it cost him some effort to dismiss the thought of Andrew Peak's eating-house, and to accept the friendly tact with which the journalist avoided all hint of unpleasant memories. That Earwaker should refrain from a single question concerning that abrupt disappearance, nearly ten years ago, sufficiently declared his knowledge of the unspeakable cause, a reflection which often made Godwin writhe. However, this difficulty was overcome, and the two met very frequently. For several weeks Godwin enjoyed better spirits than he had known since the first excitement of his life in London faded away.
One result was easily foreseen. His mind grew busy with literary projects, many that he had long contemplated and some that were new. Once more he aimed at contributing to the 'advanced' reviews, and sketched out several papers of sociological tenor. None of these were written. As soon as he sat down to deliberate composition, a sense of his deficiencies embarrassed him. Godwin's self-confidence had nothing in common with the conceit which rests on imaginary strength. Power there was in him; of that he could not but be conscious: its true direction he had not yet learned. Defect of knowledge, lack of pen-practice, confusion and contradictoriness of aims, instability of conviction, -- these faults he recognised in himself at every moment of inward scrutiny.
On his table this evening lay a library volume which he had of late been reading, a book which had sprung into enormous popularity. It was called Spiritual Aspects of Evolution, and undertook, with confidence characteristic of its kind, to reconcile the latest results of science with the dogmas of Oriental religion. This work was in his mind when he spoke so vehemently at Moxey's; already he had trembled with an impulse to write something on the subject, and during his journey home a possible essay had begun to shape itself. Late as was the hour he could not prepare for sleep. His brain throbbed with a congestion of thought; he struggled to make clear the lines on which his satire might direct itself. By two o'clock he had flung down on paper a conglomerate of burning ideas, and thus relieved he at length went to bed.
Two days later came a note from Staple Inn, inviting him to meet Malkin the next evening. By this time he had made a beginning of his critical essay, and the exordium so far satisfied him that he was tempted to take it for Earwaker's judgment. But no; better his friend should see the thing when it was complete.
About eight o'clock he reached the journalist's chambers. Malkin had not yet arrived. Peak amused himself with examining certain tropical products which the traveller had recently cast pell-mell into his friend's sitting-room. Then sounded a knock at the door, but it was not such as would have heralded the expected man.
'A telegram,' observed Earwaker, and went to take it in.
He returned with hoarse sounds of mirth.
'Our friend excuses himself. Read this characteristic despatch.'
Peak saw with surprise that the telegram far exceeded familiar dimensions. 'Unspeakably grieved,' it began. 'Cannot possibly with you. At moment's notice undertaken escort two poor girls Rouen. Not even time look in apologise. Go via Dieppe and leave Victoria few minutes. Hope be back Thursday. Express sincerest regret Mr Peak. Lament appearance discourtesy. Will apologise personally. Common humanity constrains go Rouen. Will explain Thursday. No time add another word. Rush tickets train.'
'There you have the man!' cried Earwaker. 'How do you class such a mind as that? Ten to one this is some Quixotic obligation he has laid upon himself, and probably he has gone without even a handbag.'
'Vocally delivered,' said Peak, 'this would represent a certain stage of drunkenness. I suppose it isn't open to such an explanation?'
'Malkin never was intoxicated, save with his own vivacity.'
They discussed the singular being with good-natured mirth, then turned by degrees to other topics.
'I have just come across a passage that will delight you,' said Earwaker, taking up a book. 'Perhaps you know it.'
He read from Sir Thomas Brown's Pscudodoxia Epidemica. '"Men's names should not only distinguish them. A man should be something that all men are not, and individual in somewhat beside his proper name. Thus, while it exceeds not the bound of reason and modesty, we cannot condemn singularity. Nos numerus sumus is the motto of the multitude, and for that reason are they fools."'
Peak laughed his approval.
'It astonishes me,' he said, lighting his pipe, 'that you can go on writing for this Sunday rag, when you have just as little sympathy with its aims as I have. Do get into some less offensive connection.'
'What paper would you recommend?' asked the other, with his significant smile.
'Why need you journalise at all?'
'On the whole, I like it. And remember, to admit that the multitude are fools is not the same thing as to deny the possibility of progress.'
'Do you really believe yourself a democrat, Earwaker?'
'M--m--m! Well, yes, I believe the democratic spirit is stronger in me than any other.'
Peak mused for a minute, then suddenly looked up.
'And what am I?'
'I am glad nothing much depends on my successfully defining you.'
They laughed together.
'I suppose,' said Godwin, 'you can't call a man a democrat who recognises in his heart and soul a true distinction of social classes. Social, mark. The division I instinctively support is by no means intellectual. The well-born fool is very often more sure of my respect than the working man who struggles to a fair measure of education.'
Earwaker would have liked to comment on this with remarks personal to the speaker, but he feared to do so. His silence, however, was eloquent to Peak, who resumed brusquely.
'I am not myself well-born, -- though if my parents could have come into wealth early in their lives, perhaps I might reasonably have called myself so. All sorts of arguments can be brought against my prejudice, but the prejudice is ineradicable. I respect hereditary social standing, independently of the individual's qualities. There's nothing of the flunkey in this, or I greatly deceive myself. Birth in a sphere of refinement is desirable and respectable; it saves one, absolutely, from many forms of coarseness. The masses are not only fools, but very near the brutes. Yes, they can send forth fine individuals -- but remain base. I don't deny the possibility of social advance; I only say that at present the lower classes are always disagreeable, often repulsive, sometimes hateful.'
'I could apply that to the classes above them.'
'Well, I can't. But I am quite ready to admit that there are all sorts of inconsistencies in me. Now, the other day I was reading Burns, and I couldn't describe what exaltation all at once possessed me in the thought that a ploughman had so glorified a servant-girl that together they shine in the highest heaven, far above all the monarchs of earth. This came upon me with a rush -- a very rare emotion. Wasn't that democratic?'
He inquired dubiously, and Earwaker for a moment had no reply but his familiar 'M--m--m!'
'No, it was not democratic,' the journalist decided at length; 'it was pride of intellect.'
'Think so? Then look here. If it happens that a whining wretch stops me in the street to beg, what do you suppose is my feeling? I am ashamed in the sense of my own prosperity. I can't look him in the face. If I yielded to my natural impulse, I should cry out, "Strike me! spit at me! show you hate me! -- anything but that terrible humiliation of yourself before me!" That's howl feel. The abasement of which he isn't sensible affects me on his behalf. I give money with what delicacy I can. If I am obliged to refuse, I mutter apologies and hurry away with burning cheeks. What does that mean?'
Earwaker regarded him curiously.
'That is mere fineness of humanity.'
'Perhaps moral weakness?'
'I don't care for the scalpel of the pessimist. Let us give it the better name.'
Peak had never been so communicative. His progress in composition these last evenings seemed to have raised his spirits and spurred the activity of his mind. With a look of pleasure he pursued his self-analysis.
'Special antipathies -- sometimes explicable enough -- influence me very widely. Now, I by no means hate all orders of uneducated people. A hedger, a fisherman, a country mason, -- people of that kind I rather like to talk with. I could live a good deal with them. But the London vulgar I abominate, root and branch. The mere sound of their voices nauseates me; their vilely grotesque accent and pronunciation -- bah! I could write a paper to show that they are essentially the basest of English mortals. Unhappily, I know so much about them. If I saw the probability of my dying in a London lodging-house, I would go out into the sweet-scented fields and there kill myself.'
Earwaker understood much by this avowal, and wondered whether his friend desired him so to do.
'Well, I can't say that I have any affection for the race,' he replied. 'I certainly believe that, socially and politically, there is less hope of them than of the lower orders in any other part of England.'
'They are damned by the beastly conditions of their life!' cried Godwin, excitedly. 'I don't mean only the slum-denizens. All, all Hammersmith as much as St George's-in-the-East. I must write about this; I must indeed.'
'Do by all means. Nothing would benefit you more than to get your soul into print.'
Peak delayed a little, then:
'Well, I am doing something at last.'
And he gave an account of his projected essay. By this time his hands trembled with nervous agitation, and occasionally a dryness of the palate half choked his voice.
'This may do very well,' opined Earwaker. 'I suppose you will try The Critical?'
'Yes. But have I any chance? Can a perfectly unknown man hope to get in?'
They debated this aspect of the matter. Seeing Peak had laid down his pipe, the journalist offered him tobacco.
'Thanks; I can't smoke just yet. It's my misfortune that I can't talk earnestly without throwing my body into disorder.'
'How stolid I am in comparison!' said Earwaker.
'That book of M'Naughten's,' resumed the other, going back to his subject. 'I suppose the clergy accept it?'
'Largely, I believe.'
'Now, if I were a clergyman' --
But his eye met Earwaker's, and they broke into laughter.
'Why not?' pursued Godwin. 'Did I ever tell you that my people originally wished to make a parson of me? Of course I resisted tooth and nail, but it seems to me now that I was rather foolish in doing so. I wish I had been a parson. In many ways the position would have suited me very well.'
'I am quite serious. Well, if I were so placed, I should preach Church dogma, pure and simple. I would have nothing to do with these reconciliations. I would stand firm as Jeremy Taylor; and in consequence should have an immense and enthusiastic congregation.'
'Depend upon it, let the dogmas do what they still can. There's a vast police force in them, at all events. A man may very strongly defend himself for preaching them.'
The pursuit of this argument led Earwaker to ask:
'What proportion of the clergy can still take that standing in stolid conscientiousness?'
'What proportion are convinced that it is untenable?' returned Peak.
'Many wilfully shut their eyes to the truth.'
'No, they don't shut their eyes!' cried Godwin. 'They merely lower a nictitating membrane which permits them to gaze at light without feeling its full impact.'
'I recommend you to bring that into your paper,' said the journalist, with his deep chuckle.
An hour later they were conversing with no less animation, but the talk was not so critical. Christian Moxey had come up as a topic, and Earwaker was saying that he found it difficult to divine the man's personality.
'You won't easily do that,' replied Peak, 'until you know more of his story. I can't see that I am bound to secrecy -- at all events with you. Poor Moxey imagines that he is in love, and the fancy has lasted about ten years.
'When I first knew him he was paying obvious attentions to a rather plain cousin down at Twybridge. Why, I don't know, for he certainly was devoted to a girl here in London. All he has confessed to me is that he had given up hopes of her, but that a letter of some sort or other revived them, and he hastened back to town. He might as well have stayed away; the girl very soon married another man. Less than a year later she had bitterly repented this, and in some way or other she allowed Moxey to know it. Since then they have been Platonic lovers -- nothing more, I am convinced. They see each other about once in six months, and presumably live on a hope that the obnoxious husband may decease. I only know the woman as "Constance"; never saw her.'
'So that's Moxey? I begin to understand better.'
'Admirable fellow, but deplorably weak. I have an affection for him, and have had from our first meeting.'
'Women!' mused Earwaker, and shook his head.
'You despise them?'
'On the whole, I'm afraid so.'
'Yes, but what women?' cried the other with impatience. 'It would be just as reasonable to say that you despise men. Can't you see that?'
'I doubt it.'
'Now look here; the stock objections to women are traditional. They take no account of the vast change that is coming about. Because women were once empty-headed, it is assumed they are all still so en masse. The defect of the female mind? It is my belief that this is nothing more nor less than the defect of the uneducated human mind. I believe most men among the brutally ignorant exhibit the very faults which are cried out upon as exclusively feminine. A woman has hitherto been an ignorant human being; that explains everything.'
'Not everything; something, perhaps. Remember your evolutionism. The preservation of the race demands in women many kinds of irrationality, of obstinate instinct, which enrage a reasoning man. Don't suppose I speak theoretically. Four or five years ago I had really made up my mind to marry; I wasted much valuable time among women and girls, of anything but low social standing. But my passions were choked by my logical faculty. I foresaw a terrible possibility -- that I might beat my wife. One thing I learned with certainty was that the woman, qua woman, hates abstract thought -- hates it. Moreover (and of consequence) she despises every ambition that has not a material end.'
He enlarged upon the subject, followed it into all its ramifications, elaborated the inconsistencies with which it is rife. Peak's reply was deliberate.
'Admitting that some of these faults are rooted in sex, I should only find them intolerable when their expression took a vulgar form. Between irrationality and coarseness of mind there is an enormous distinction.'
'With coarse minds I have nothing to do.'
'Forgive me if I ask you a blunt question,' said Peak, after hesitating. 'Have you ever associated with women of the highest refinement?'
'I don't know what that phrase means. It sounds rather odd on your lips.'
'Well, women of the highest class of commoners. With peeresses we needn't concern ourselves.'
'You imagine that social precedence makes all that difference in women?'
'Yes, I do. The daughter of a county family is a finer being than any girl who can spring from the nomad orders.'
'Even supposing your nomads produce a Rachel or a Charlotte Bronteë?'
'We are not talking of genius,' Peak replied.
'It was irrelevant, I know. -- Well, yes, I have conversed now and then with what you would call well-born women. They are delightful creatures, some of them, in given circumstances. But do you think I ever dreamt of taking a wife drenched with social prejudices?'
Peak's face expressed annoyance, and he said nothing.
'A man's wife,' pursued Earwaker, 'may be his superior in whatever you like, except social position. That is precisely the distinction that no woman can forget or forgive. On that account they are the obstructive element in social history. If I loved a woman of rank above my own she would make me a renegade; for her sake I should deny my faith. I should write for the St James's Gazette, and at last poison myself in an agony of shame.'
A burst of laughter cleared the air for a moment, but for a moment only. Peak's countenance clouded over again, and at length he said in a lower tone:
'There are men whose character would defy that rule.'
'Yes -- to their own disaster. But I ought to have made one exception. There is a case in which a woman will marry without much regard to her husband's origin. Let him be a parson, and he may aim as high as he chooses.'
Peak tried to smile. He made no answer, and fell into a fit of brooding.
'What's all this about?' asked the journalist, when he too had mused awhile. 'Whose acquaintance have you been making?'
The suspicion was inevitable.
'If it were true, perhaps you would be justified in mistrusting my way of regarding these things. But it's the natural tendency of my mind. If I ever marry at all, it will be a woman of far higher birth than my own.'
'Don't malign your parents, old fellow. They gave you a brain inferior to that of few men. You will never meet a woman of higher birth.'
'That's a friendly sophism. I can't thank you for it, because it has a bitter side.'
But the compliment had excited Peak, and after a moment's delay he exclaimed:
'I have no other ambition in life -- no other! Think the confession as ridiculous as you like; my one supreme desire is to marry a perfectly refined woman. Put it in the correct terms: I am a plebeian, and I aim at marrying a lady.'
The last words were flung out defiantly. He quivered as he spoke, and his face flushed.
'I can't wish you success,' returned his friend, with a grave smile.
'You couldn't help it sounding like a sneer, if you did. The desire is hopeless, of course. It's because I know that, that I have made up my mind to travel for a year or two; it'll help me on towards the age when I shall regard all women with indifference. We won't talk about it any more.'
'One question. You seriously believe that you could find satisfaction in the life to which such a marriage would condemn you?'
'What life?' asked Peak, impatiently.
'That of an average gentleman, let us say, with house in town and country, with friends whose ruling motive was social propriety.'
'I could enjoy the good and throw aside the distasteful.'
'What about the distastefulness of your wife's crass conventionalism, especially in religion?'
'It would not be crass, to begin with. If her religion were genuine, I could tolerate it well enough; if it were merely a form, I could train her to my own opinions. Society is growing liberal -- the best of it. Please remember that I have in mind a woman of the highest type our civilisation can produce.'
'Then you mustn't look for her in society!' cried Earwaker.
'I don't care; where you will, so long as she had always lived among people of breeding and high education, and never had her thoughts soiled with the vile contact of poverty.'
Earwaker started up and reached a volume from a shelf. Quickly finding the desired page, he began to read aloud:
He read to the end of the poem, and then looked up with an admiring smile.
'An ideal!' exclaimed Peak. 'An ideal akin to Murger's and Musset's grisettes, who never existed.'
'An ideal, most decidedly. But pray what is this consummate lady you have in mind? An ideal every bit as much, and of the two I prefer Browning's. For my own part, I am a polygamist; my wives live in literature, and too far asunder to be able to quarrel. Impossible women, but exquisite. They shall suffice to me.'
Peak rose, sauntered about the room for a minute or two, then said:
'I have just got a title for my paper. I shall call it "The New Sophistry."'
'Do very well, I should think,' replied the other, smiling. 'Will you let me see it when it's done?'
'Who knows if I shall finish it? Nothing I ever undertook has been finished yet -- nothing won that I ever aimed at. Good night. Let me hear about Malkin.'
In a week's time Godwin received another summons to Staple Inn, with promise of Malkin's assured presence. In reply he wrote:
'Owing to a new arrangement at Bates's, I start tomorrow for my holiday in Cornwall, so cannot see you for a few weeks. Please offer Malkin my apologies; make them (I mean it) as profuse as those he telegraphed. Herewith I send you my paper, "The New Sophistry", which I have written at a few vehement sittings, and have carelessly copied. If you think it worth while, will you have the kindness to send it for me to The Critical? I haven't signed it, as my unmeaning name would perhaps indispose the fellow to see much good in it. I should thank you if you would write in your own person, saying that you act for a friend; you are probably well known in those quarters. If it is accepted, time enough to claim my glory. If it seems to you to have no chance, keep it till I return, as I hate the humiliation of refusals. -- Don't think I made an ass of myself the other night. We will never speak on that subject again. All I said was horribly sincere, but I'm afraid you can't understand that side of my nature. I should never have spoken so frankly to Moxey, though he has made no secret with me of his own weaknesses. If I perish before long in a South American swamp, you will be able to reflect on my personality with completer knowledge, so I don't regret the indiscretion.'
'Pereunt et imputantur.'
Godwin Peak read the motto beneath the clock in Exeter Cathedral, and believed it of Christian origin. Had he known that the words were found in Martial, his rebellious spirit would have enjoyed the consecration of a phrase from such an unlikely author. Even as he must have laughed had he stood in the Vatican before the figures of those two Greek dramatists who, for ages, were revered as Christian saints.
His ignorance preserved him from a clash of sentiments. This afternoon he was not disposed to cynicism; rather he welcomed the softening influence of this noble interior, and let the golden sunlight form what shapes it would -- heavenly beam, mystic aureole -- before his mind's eye. Architecture had no special interest for him, and the history of church or faith could seldom touch his emotions; but the glorious handiwork of men long dead, the solemn stillness of an ancient sanctuary, made that appeal to him which is independent of names.
'Pereunt et imputantur.'
He sat down where the soft, slow ticking of the clock could guide his thoughts. This morning he had left London by the earliest train, and after a night in Exeter would travel westward by leisurely stages, seeing as much as possible of the coast and of that inland scenery which had geological significance. His costume declared him bent on holiday, but, at the same time, distinguished him with delicate emphasis from the tourist of the season. Trustworthy sartorial skill had done its best for his person. Sitting thus, he had the air of a gentleman who enjoys no unwonted ease. He could forget himself in reverie, and be unaware of soft footfalls that drew near along the aisle.
But the sound of a young voice, subdued yet very clear, made claim upon his attention.
'Sidwell! -- Sidwell!'
She who spoke was behind him; on looking up, he saw that a lady just in front had stopped and turned to the summons; smiling, she retraced her steps. He moved, so as to look discreetly in the backward direction, and observed a group of four persons, who were occupied with a tablet on the wall: a young man (not long out of boyhood), a girl who might be a year or two younger, and two ladies, of whom it could only be said that they were mature in the beauty of youth, probably of maidenhood -- one of them, she who had been called back by the name of 'Sidwell'.
Surely an uncommon name. From a guide-book, with which he had amused himself in the train, he knew that one of the churches of Exeter was dedicated to St Sidwell, but only now did his recollection apprise him of a long past acquaintance with the name of the saint. Had not Buckland Warricombe a sister called Sidwell? And -- did he only surmise a connection between the Warricombes and Devon? No, no; on that remote day, when he went out with Buckland to the house near Kingsmill, Mr Warricombe spoke to him of Exeter, -- mentioning that the town of his birth was Axminster, where William Buckland, the geologist, also was born; whence the name of his eldest son. How suddenly it all came back!
He rose and moved apart to a spot whence he might quietly observe the strangers. 'Sidwell', once remarked, could not be confused with the companion of her own age; she was slimmer, shorter (if but slightly), more sedate in movement, and perhaps better dressed -- though both were admirable in that respect. Ladies, beyond a doubt. And the young man --
At this distance it was easy to deceive oneself, but did not that face bring something back? Now, as he smiled, it seemed to recall Buckland Warricombe -- with a difference. This might well be a younger brother; there used to be one or two.
They were familiar with the Cathedral, and at present appeared to take exclusive interest in certain mural monuments. For perhaps ten minutes they lingered about the aisle, then, after a glance at the west window, went forth. With quick step, Godwin pursued them; he issued in time to see them entering an open carriage, which presently drove away towards High Street.
For half an hour he walked the Cathedral Close. Not long ago, on first coming into that quiet space, with its old houses, its smooth lawns, its majestic trees, he had felt the charm peculiar to such scenes -- the natural delight in a form of beauty especially English. Now, the impression was irrecoverable; he could see nothing but those four persons, and their luxurious carriage, and the two beautiful horses which had borne them -- whither? As likely as not the identity he had supposed for them was quite imaginary; yet it would be easy to ascertain whether a Warricombe family dwelt at Exeter. The forename of Buckland's father --? He never had known it. Still, it was worth while consulting a directory.
He walked to his hotel.
Yes, the name Warricombe stood there, but it occurred more than once. He sought counsel of the landlord. Which of these Warricombes was a gentleman of position, with grown-up sons and daughters? To such a description answered Martin Warricombe, Esquire, well known in the city. His house was in the Old Tiverton Road, out beyond St Sidwell's, two miles away; anyone in that district would serve as guide to it.
With purpose indefinite, Godwin set forth in the direction suggested. At little more than a saunter, he passed out of High Street into its continuation, where he soon descried the Church of St Sidwell, and thence, having made inquiry, walked towards the Old Tiverton Road. He was now quite beyond the town limits, and few pedestrians came in sight; if he really wished to find the abode of Martin Warricombe, he must stop the first questionable person. But to what end this inquiry? He could not even be certain that Martin was the man he had in mind, and even were he right in all his conjectures, what had he to do with the Warricombes?
Ten years ago the family had received him courteously as Buckland's fellow-student; he had spent an hour or two at their house, and subsequently a few words had passed when they saw him on prize-day at Whitelaw. To Buckland he had never written; he had never since heard of him; that name was involved in the miserable whirl of circumstances which brought his College life to a close, and it was always his hope that Buckland thought no more of him. Even had there been no disagreeable memories, it was surely impossible to renew after this interval so very slight an acquaintance. How could they receive him, save with civilly mild astonishment?
An errand-boy came along, whistling townwards, a big basket over his head. No harm in asking where Mr Warricombe lived. The reply was prompt: second house on the right hand, rather a large one, not a quarter of a mile onward.
Here, then. The site was a good one. From this part of the climbing road one looked over the lower valley of the Exe, saw the whole estuary, and beyond that a horizon of blue sea. Fair, rich land, warm under the westering sun. The house itself seemed to be old, but after all was not very large; it stood amid laurels, and in the garden behind rose a great yew-tree. No person was visible; but for the wave-like murmur of neighbouring pines, scarce a sound would have disturbed the air.
Godwin walked past, and found that the road descended into a deep hollow, whence between high banks, covered with gorse and bracken and many a summer flower, it led again up a hill thick planted with firs; at the lowest point was a bridge over a streamlet, offering on either hand a view of soft green meadows. A spot of exquisite retirement: happy who lived here in security from the struggle of life!
It was folly to spoil his enjoyment of country such as this by dreaming impossible opportunities. The Warricombes could be nothing to him; to meet with Buckland would only revive the shame long ago outlived. After resting for a few minutes he turned back, passed the silent house again, delighted himself with the wide view, and so into the city once more, where he began to seek the remnants of its old walls.
The next morning was Sunday, and he had planned to go by the Plymouth train to a station whence he could reach Start Point; but his mood was become so unsettled that ten o'clock, when already he should have been on his journey, found him straying about the Cathedral Close. A mere half-purpose, a vague wavering intention, which might at any moment be scattered by common sense, drew his steps to the door of the Cathedral, where people were entering for morning service; he moved idly within sight of the carriages which drew up. Several had discharged their freightage of tailoring and millinery, when two vehicles, which seemed companions, stopped at the edge of the pavement, and from the second alighted the young ladies whom Godwin had yesterday observed; their male companion, however, was different. The carriage in advance also contained four persons: a gentleman of sixty, his wife, a young girl, and the youth of yesterday. It needed but a glance to inform Godwin that the oldest of the party was Mr Warricombe, Buckland's father; ten years had made no change in his aspect. Mrs Warricombe was not less recognisable. They passed at once into the edifice, and he had scarcely time to bestow a keen look upon Sidwell.
That was a beautiful girl; he stood musing upon the picture registered by his brain. But why not follow, and from a neighbouring seat survey her and the others at his leisure? Pooh! But the impulse constrained him. After all, he could not get a place that allowed him to see Sidwell. Her companion, however, the one who seemed to be of much the same age, was well in view. Sisters they could not be; nothing of the Warricombe countenance revealed itself in those handsome but strongly-marked features. A beautiful girl, she also, yet of a type that made slight appeal to him. Sidwell was all he could imagine of sweet and dignified; more modest in bearing, more gracile, more --
Monday at noon, and he still walked the streets of Exeter. Early this morning he had been out to the Old Tiverton Road, and there, on the lawn amid the laurels, had caught brief glimpse of two female figures, in one of which he merely divined Sidwell. Why he tarried thus he did not pretend to explain to himself. Rain had just come on, and the lowering sky made him low-spirited; he mooned about the street under his umbrella.
And at this rate, might vapour away his holiday. Exeter was tedious, but he could not make up his mind to set forth for the sea-shore, where only his own thoughts awaited him. Packed away in his wallet lay geological hammer, azimuth compass, clinometer, miniature microscope, -- why should he drag all that lumber about with him? What to him were the bygone millions of ages, the hoary records of unimaginable time? One touch of a girl's hand, one syllable of musical speech, -- was it not that whereof his life had truly need?
As remote from him, however, as the age of the pterodactyl. How often was it necessary to repeat this? On a long voyage, such as he had all but resolved to take, one might perchance form acquaintances. He had heard of such things; not impossibly, a social circle might open to him at Buenos Ayres. But here in England his poor origin, his lack of means would for ever bar him from the intimacy of people like the Warricombes.
He loitered towards the South-Western station, dimly conscious of a purpose to look for trains. Instead of seeking the time-tables he stood before the bookstall and ran his eye along the titles of new novels; he had half a mind to buy one of Hardy's and read himself into the temper which suited summer rambles. But just as his hand was stretched forth, a full voice, speaking beside him, made demand for a London weekly paper. Instantly he turned. The tones had carried him back to Whitelaw; the face disturbed that illusion, but substituted a reality which threw him into tremor.
His involuntary gaze was met with one of equal intensity. A man of his own years, but in splendid health and with bright eyes that looked enjoyment of life, suddenly addressed him.
'Godwin Peak -- surely --?'
'Buckland Warricombe, no less surely.'
They shook hands with vigour, laughing in each other's faces; then, after a moment's pause, Warricombe drew aside from the bookstall, for sake of privacy.
'Why did we lose sight of each other?' he asked, flashing a glance at Godwin's costume. 'Why didn't you write to me at Cambridge? What have you been doing this half-century?'
'I have been in London all the time.'
'I am there most of the year. Well, I rejoice to have met you. On a holiday?'
'Loitering towards Cornwall.'
'In that case, you can come and have lunch with me at my father's house. It's only a mile or two off. I was going to walk, but we'll drive, if you like.'
There was no refusing, and no possibility of reflection. Buckland's hearty manner made the invitation in itself a thoroughly pleasant one, and before Peak could sufficiently command his thoughts to picture the scene towards which he was going they were walking side by side through the town. In appearance, Warricombe showed nothing of the revolutionary which, in old days, he aimed at making himself, and his speech had a suavity which no doubt resulted from much intercourse with the polished world; Godwin was filled with envious admiration of his perfect physique, and the mettle which kept it in such excellent vigour. Even for a sturdy walker, it was no common task to keep pace with Buckland's strides; Peak soon found himself conversing rather too breathlessly for comfort.
'What is your latest record for the mile?' he inquired.
Warricombe, understanding at once the reference to his old athletic pastime and its present application, laughed merrily, and checked his progress.
'A bad habit of mine; it gets me into trouble with everyone. By-the-bye, haven't you become a stronger man than used to seem likely? I'm quite glad to see how well you look.'
The sincerity of these expressions, often repeated, put Godwin far more at his ease than the first moment's sensation had promised. He too began to feel a genuine pleasure in the meeting, and soon bade defiance to all misgivings. Delicacy perhaps withheld Warricombe from further mention of Whitelaw, but on the other hand it was not impossible that he knew nothing of the circumstances which tormented Godwin's memory. On leaving the College perchance he had lost all connection with those common friends who might have informed him of subsequent jokes and rumours. Unlikely, to be sure; for doubtless some of his Whitelaw contemporaries encountered him at Cambridge; and again, was it not probable that the younger Warricombe had become a Whitelaw student? Then Professor Gale -- no matter! The Warricombes of course knew all about Andrew Peak and his dining-rooms, but they were liberal-minded, and could forgive a boy's weakness, as well as overlook an acquaintance's obscure origin. In the joy of finding himself exuberantly welcomed by a man of Buckland's world he overcame his ignoble self-consciousness.
'Did you know that we were in this part of the country?' Warricombe asked, once more speeding ahead.
'I always thought of you in connection with Kingsmill.'
'We gave up Thornhaw seven years ago. My father was never quite comfortable out of Devonshire. The house I am taking you to has been in our family for three generations. I have often tried to be proud of the fact, but, as you would guess, that kind of thing doesn't come very natural to me.'
In the effort to repudiate such sentiment, Buckland distinctly betrayed its hold upon him. He imagined he was meeting Godwin on equal ground, but the sensibility of the proletarian could not thus be deceived. There was a brief silence, during which each looked away from the other.
'Still keep up your geology?' was Warricombe's next question.
'I can just say that I haven't forgotten it all.'
'I'm afraid that's more than I can. During my Cambridge time it caused disagreeable debates with my father. You remember that his science is of the old school. I wouldn't say a word to disparage him. I believe the extent of his knowledge is magnificent; but he can't get rid of that old man of the sea, the Book of Genesis. A few years ago I wasn't too considerate in argument, and I talked as I oughtn't to have done, called names, and so on. The end of it was, I dropped science altogether, having got as much out of it as I needed. The good old pater has quite forgiven my rudeness. At present we agree to differ, and get on capitally. I'm sure he'll be delighted to see you. There are some visitors with us; a Miss Moorhouse and her brother. I think you'll like them. Couldn't you stay overnight?'
Godwin was unable to reply on the instant, and his companion proceeded with the same heartiness.
'Just as you like, you know. But do stay if you can. On Wednesday morning I must go back to town. I act as secretary to Godolphin, the member for Slacksea.'
Peak's acquaintance with current politics was slight, but Mr Ellis Godolphin, the aristocratic Radical, necessarily stood before his imagination with some clearness of outline. So this was how life had dealt with Buckland. The announcement was made with a certain satisfaction, as if it implied more than the hearer would readily appreciate. Again there was a slight shrinking on Godwin's part; it would be natural for him to avow his own position, and so leave no room for misunderstandings, but before he could shape a phrase Buckland was again questioning.
'Do you ever see any of the old fellows?'
'I have met one or two of them, by chance.'
As if his tact informed him that this inquiry had been a mistake, Warricombe resumed the subject of his family.
'My brother Louis is at home -- of course you can't remember him; he was a youngster when you were at Thornhaw. The younger boy died some years ago, a pony accident; cut up my father dreadfully. Then there's my sister Sidwell, and my sister Fanny -- that's all of us. I can't quite answer for Louis, but the rest are of the old school. Liberal enough, don't be afraid. But -- well, the old school.'
As Godwin kept silence, the speaker shot a glance at him, keenly scrutinising. Their eyes did not meet; Peak kept his on the ground.
'Care much about politics nowadays?'
'Not very much.'
'Can't say that I do myself,' pursued Buckland. 'I rather drifted into it. Godolphin, I daresay, has as little humbug about him as most parliamentarians; we stick to the practical fairly well. I shall never go into the House on my own account. But there's a sort of pleasure in being in the thick of public movements. I'm not cut out for debate; should lose my temper, and tell disagreeable truths -- which wouldn't do, you know. But behind the scenes -- it isn't bad, in a way.'
A longer pause obliged Godwin to speak of himself.
'My life is less exciting. For years I have worked in a manufacturing laboratory at Rotherhithe.'
'So science has carried the day with you, after all. It used to be very doubtful.'
This was a kind and pleasant way of interpreting necessity. Godwin felt grateful, and added with a smile:
'I don't think I shall stick to it much longer. For one thing, I am sick of town. Perhaps I shall travel for a year or two; perhaps -- I'm in a state of transition, to tell the truth.'
Buckland revolved this information; his face told that he found it slightly puzzling.
'You once had thoughts of literature.'
'Long given up.'
'Leisure would perhaps revive them?'
'Possibly; but I think not.'
They were now quitting the town, and Peak, unwilling to appear before strangers in a state of profuse perspiration, again moderated his friend's speed. They began to talk about the surrounding country, a theme which occupied them until the house was reached. With quick-beating heart, Godwin found himself at the gate by which he had already twice passed. Secure in the decency of his apparel, and no longer oppressed by bashfulness, he would have gone joyously forward but for the dread of a possible ridiculous association which his name might revive in the thoughts of Mr and Mrs Warricombe. Yet Buckland -- who had no lack of kindly feeling -- would hardly have brought him here had the reception which awaited him been at all dubious.
'If we don't come across anyone,' said Warricombe, 'we'll go straight up to my room.'
But the way was not clear. Within the beautiful old porch sat Sidwell Warricombe and her friend of the striking countenance, whom Godwin now knew as Miss Moorhouse. Buckland addressed his sister in a tone of lively pleasure.
'Whom do you think I have met and brought home with me? Here is my old friend, Godwin Peak.'
Under the two pairs of female eyes, Godwin kept a calm, if rather stern, face.
'I should have had no difficulty in recognising Mr Peak,' said Sidwell, holding out her hand. 'But was the meeting quite by chance?'
To Godwin himself the question was of course directed, with a look of smiling interest -- such welcome as could not have been improved upon; she listened to his reply, then presented him to Miss Moorhouse. A slight languor in her movements and her voice, together with the beautiful coldness of her complexion, made it probable that she did not share the exuberant health manifest in her two brothers. She conversed with mature self-possession, yet showed a slight tendency to abstractedness. On being addressed, she regarded the speaker steadily for an instant before shaping her answer, which always, however trifling the subject, seemed carefully worded. In these few moments of dialogue, Godwin reached the conclusion that Sidwell had not much sense of humour, but that the delicacy of her mind was unsurpassable.
In Miss Moorhouse there was no defect of refinement, but her conversation struck a note of sprightliness at once more energetic and more subtle than is often found in English girls. Thus, though at times she looked so young that it might be doubted whether she had long been out of her teens, at others one suspected her older than Sidwell. The friends happened to be as nearly as possible of an age, which was verging to twenty-six.
When he spoke to Miss Moorhouse, Buckland's frank tone subdued itself. He watched her face with reverent attention, smiled when she smiled, and joined in her laughter with less than his usual volume of sound. In acuteness he was obviously inferior to her, and there were moments when he betrayed some nervousness under her rejoinders. All this was matter of observation for Peak, who had learnt to exercise his discernment even whilst attending to the proprieties.
The sounding of the first luncheon-bell left the young men free to go upstairs. When at length they presented themselves in the drawing-room, Mrs Warricombe and her younger daughter sat there alone. The greeting of his hostess did not quite satisfy Godwin, though it was sufficiently courteous; he remembered that ten years ago Mrs Warricombe had appeared to receive him with some restraint, and his sensation in renewing her acquaintance was one of dislike. But in a moment the master of the house joined them, and no visitor could have had a more kindly welcome than that he offered to his son's friend. With genial tact, Mr Warricombe ignored the interval since his last conversation with Godwin, and spoke as if this visit were the most natural thing in the world.
'Do you already know the country about Exeter?'
'I have seen very little of it yet.'
'Oh, then, we must show you our points of view. Our own garden offers a glimpse of the river-mouth and a good prospect of Haldon -- the ridge beyond the Exe; but there are many much better points within easy reach. You are in no hurry, I hope?'
Louis Warricombe and Miss Moorhouse's brother were away on a long walk; they did not return for lunch. Godwin was glad of this, for time had wrought the change in him that he felt more at ease in female society than under the eyes of young men whose social position inclined them to criticism. The meal proved as delightful as luncheon is wont to be in a luxurious country-house, when brilliant sunshine gleams on the foliage visible from windows, and the warmth of the season sanctions clear colours in costume. The talk was wholly of country pleasures. It afforded the visitor no little satisfaction to be able to make known his acquaintance with parts of England to which the Warricombes had not penetrated. Godwin learnt that the family were insular in their tastes; a mention by Miss Moorhouse of continental scenes led the host to avow a strong preference for his own country, under whatever aspect, and Sidwell murmured her sympathy.
No less introspective than in the old days, though he could better command his muscles, Peak, after each of his short remarks, made comparison of his tone and phraseology with those of the other speakers. Had he still any marks of the ignoble world from which he sprang? Any defect of pronunciation, any native awkwardness of utterance? Impossible to judge himself infallibly, but he was conscious of no vulgar mannerism. Though it was so long since he left Whitelaw, the accent of certain of the Professors still remained with him as an example: when endeavouring to be graceful, he was wont to hear the voice of Dr Nares, or of Professor Barber who lectured on English Literature. More recently he had been observant of Christian Moxey's speech, which had a languid elegance worth imitating in certain particulars. Buckland Warricombe was rather a careless talker, but it was the carelessness of a man who had never needed to reflect on such a matter, the refinement of whose enunciation was assured to him from the nursery. That now was a thing to be aimed at. Preciseness must be avoided, for in a young man it seemed to argue conscious effort: a loose sentence now and then, a colloquialism substituted for the more grammatical phrase.
Heaven be thanked that he was unconcerned on the point of garb! Inferiority in that respect would have been fatal to his ease. His clothes were not too new, and in quality were such as he had the habit of wearing. The Warricombes must have immediately detected any pretentiousness, were it but in a necktie; that would impress them more unfavourably than signs of poverty. But he defied inspection. Not Sidwell herself, doubtless sensitive in the highest degree, could conceive a prejudice against him on this account.
His misgivings were overcome. If these people were acquainted with the 'dining-rooms' joke, it certainly did not affect their behaviour to him, and he could hope, by the force of his personality, to obliterate from their minds such disagreeable thoughts as they might secretly entertain. Surely he could make good his claim to be deemed a gentleman. To Buckland he had declared his position, and no shame attached to it. A man of scientific tastes, like Mr Warricombe, must consider it respectable enough. Grant him a little time, and why should he not become a recognised friend of this family?
If he were but resident in Exeter.
For the first time, he lost himself in abstraction, and only an inquiry from Sidwell recalled him.
'You have seen the Cathedral, Mr Peak?'
'Oh yes! I attended service there yesterday morning.'
Had he reflected, perhaps he would not have added this circumstance; even in speaking he suffered a confused doubtfulness. But as soon as the words were uttered, he felt strangely glad. Sidwell bestowed upon him an unmistakable look of approval; her mother gazed with colder interest; Mr Warricombe regarded him, and mused; Buckland, a smile of peculiar meaning on his close lips, glanced from him to Miss Moorhouse.
'Ah, then, you heard Canon Grayling,' remarked the father of the family, with something in his tone which answered to Sidwell's facial expression. 'How did you like his sermon?'
Godwin was trifling with a pair of nut-crackers, but the nervousness evident in his fingers did not prevent him from replying with a natural air of deliberation.
'I was especially struck with the passage about the barren fig-tree.'
The words might have expressed a truth, but in that case a tone of sarcasm must have winged them. As it was, they involved either hypocrisy or ungenerous irony at the expense of his questioner. Buckland could not but understand them in the latter sense; his face darkened. At that moment, Peak met his eye, and encountered its steady searching gaze with a perfectly calm smile. Half-a-dozen pulsings of his heart -- violent, painful, and the fatal hour of his life had struck.
'What had he to say about it?' Buckland asked, carelessly.
Peak's reply was one of those remarkable efforts of mind -- one might say, of character -- which are sometimes called forth, without premeditation, almost without consciousness, by a profound moral crisis. A minute or two ago he would have believed it impossible to recall and state in lucid terms the arguments to which, as he sat in the Cathedral, he had barely given ear; he remembered vaguely that the preacher (whose name he knew not till now) had dwelt for a few moments on the topic indicated, but at the time he was indisposed to listen seriously, and what chance was there that the chain of thought had fixed itself in his memory? Now, under the marvelling regard of his conscious self, he poured forth an admirable rendering of the Canon's views, fuller than the original -- more eloquent, more subtle. For five minutes he held his hearers in absorbed attention, even Buckland bending forward with an air of genuine interest; and when he stopped, rather suddenly, there followed a silence.
'Mr Peak,' said the host, after a cough of apology, 'you have made that clearer to me than it was yesterday. I must thank you.'
Godwin felt that a slight bow of acknowledgment was perhaps called for, but not a muscle would obey his will. He was enervated; perspiration stood on his forehead. The most severe physical effort could not have reduced him to a feebler state.
Sidwell was speaking:
'Mr Peak has developed what Canon Grayling only suggested.'
'A brilliant effort of exegesis,' exclaimed Buckland, with a good-natured laugh.
Again the young men exchanged looks. Godwin smiled as one might under a sentence of death. As for the other, his suspicion had vanished, and he now gave way to frank amusement. Luncheon was over, and by a general movement all went forth on to the lawn in front of the house. Mr Warricombe, even more cordial than hitherto, named to Godwin the features of the extensive landscape.
'But you see that the view is in a measure spoilt by the growth of the city. A few years ago, none of those ugly little houses stood in the mid-distance. A few years hence, I fear, there will be much more to complain of. I daresay you know all about the ship-canal: the story of the countess, and so forth?'
Buckland presently suggested that the afternoon might be used for a drive.
'I was about to propose it,' said his father. 'You might start by the Stoke Canon Road, so as to let Mr Peak have the famous view from the gate; then go on towards Silverton, for the sake of the reversed prospect from the Exe. Who shall be of the party?'
It was decided that four only should occupy the vehicle, Miss Moorhouse and Fanny Warricombe to be the two ladies. Godwin regretted Sidwell's omission, but the friendly informality of the arrangement delighted him. When the carriage rolled softly from the gravelled drive, Buckland holding the reins, he felt an animation such as no event had ever produced in him. No longer did he calculate phrases. A spontaneous aptness marked his dialogue with Miss Moorhouse, and the laughing words he now and then addressed to Fanny. For a short time Buckland was laconic, but at length he entered into the joyous tone of the occasion. Earwaker would have stood in amazement, could he have seen and heard the saturnine denizen of Peckham Rye.
The weather was superb. A sea-breeze mitigated the warmth of the cloudless sun, and where a dark pine-tree rose against the sky it gave the azure depths a magnificence unfamiliar to northern eyes.
'On such a day as this,' remarked Miss Moorhouse, dividing her look between Buckland and his friend, 'one feels that there's a good deal to be said for England.'
'But for the vile weather,' was Warricombe's reply, 'you wouldn't know such enjoyment.'
'Oh, I can't agree with that for a moment! My capacity for enjoyment is unlimited. That philosophy is unworthy of you; it belongs to a paltry scheme called "making the best of things".'
'In which you excel, Miss Moorhouse.'
'That she does!' agreed Fanny -- a laughing, rosy-cheeked maiden.
'I deny it! No one is more copious in railing against circumstances.'
'But you turn them all to a joke,' Fanny objected.
'That's my profound pessimism. I am misunderstood. No one expects irony from a woman.'
Peak found it difficult not to gaze too persistently at the subtle countenance. He was impelled to examine it by a consciousness that he himself received a large share of Miss Moorhouse's attention, and a doubt as to the estimation in which she held him. Canon Grayling's sermon and Godwin's comment had elicited no remark from her. Did she belong to the ranks of emancipated women? With his experience of Marcella Moxey, he welcomed the possibility of this variation of the type, but at the same time, in obedience to a new spirit that had strange possession of him, recognised that such phenomena no longer aroused his personal interest. By the oddest of intellectual processes he had placed himself altogether outside the sphere of unorthodox spirits. Concerning Miss Moorhouse he cared only for the report she might make of him to the Warricombes.
Before long, the carriage was stopped that he might enjoy one of the pleasantest views in the neighbourhood of the city. A gate, interrupting a high bank with which the road was bordered, gave admission to the head of a great cultivated slope, which fell to the river Exe; hence was suddenly revealed a wide panorama. Three well-marked valleys -- those of the Creedy, the Exe, and the Culm -- spread their rural loveliness to remote points of the horizon; gentle undulations, with pasture and woodland, with long winding roads, and many a farm that gleamed white amid its orchard leafage, led the gaze into regions of evanescent hue and outline. Westward, a bolder swell pointed to the skirts of Dartmoor. No inappropriate detail disturbed the impression. Exeter was wholly hidden behind the hill on which the observers stood, and the line of railway leading thither could only be descried by special search. A foaming weir at the hill's foot blended its soft murmur with that of the fir branches hereabouts; else, no sound that the air could convey beyond the pulsing of a bird's note.
All had alighted, and for a minute or two there was silence. When Peak had received such geographical instruction as was needful, Warricombe pointed out to him a mansion conspicuous on the opposite slope of the Exe valley, the seat of Sir Stafford Northcote. The house had no architectural beauty, but its solitary lordship amid green pastures and tracts of thick wood declared the graces and privileges of ancestral wealth. Standing here alone, Godwin would have surveyed these possessions of an English aristocrat with more or less bitterness; envy would, for a moment at all events, have perturbed his pleasure in the natural scene. Accompanied as he was, his emotion took a form which indeed was allied to envy, but had nothing painful. He exulted in the prerogatives of birth and opulence, felt proud of hereditary pride, gloried that his mind was capable of appreciating to the full those distinctions which, by the vulgar, are not so much as suspected. Admitted to equal converse with men and women who represented the best in English society, he could cast away the evil grudge, the fierce spirit of self-assertion, and be what nature had proposed in endowing him with large brain, generous blood, delicate tissues. What room for malignancy? He was accepted by his peers, and could regard with tolerance even those ignoble orders of mankind amid whom he had so long dwelt unrecognised.
A bee hummed past him, and this sound -- of all the voices of nature that which most intenerates -- filled his heart to overflowing. Moisture made his eyes dim, and at the impulse of a feeling of gratitude, such as only the subtlest care of psychology could fully have explained, he turned to Buckland, saying:
'But for my meeting with you I should have had a lonely and not very cheerful holiday. I owe you a great deal.'
Warricombe laughed, but as an Englishman does when he wishes to avoid show of emotion.
'I am very glad indeed that we did meet. Stay with us over tomorrow. I only wish I were not obliged to go to London on Wednesday. -- Look, Fanny, isn't that a hawk, over Cowley Bridge?'
'Do you feel you would like to shoot it?' asked Miss Moorhouse -- who a moment ago had very closely examined Peak's face.
'To shoot it -- why do you ask that?'
'Confess that you felt the desire.'
'Every man does,' replied Buckland, 'until he has had a moment to recover himself. That's the human instinct.'
'The male human instinct. Thank you for your honesty.'
They drove on, and by a wide circuit, occasionally stopping for the view, returned to the Old Tiverton Road, and so home. By this time Louis Warricombe and Mr Moorhouse were back from their walk. Reposing in the company of the ladies, they had partaken of such refreshments as are lawful at five o'clock, and now welcomed with vivacity the later arrivals. Moorhouse was something older than Buckland, a sallow-cheeked man with forehead and eyes expressive of much intelligence. Till of late he had been a Cambridge tutor, but was now privately occupied in mathematical pursuits. Louis Warricombe had not yet made up his mind what profession to follow, and to aid the process of resolve had for the present devoted himself to physical exercise.
Tea-cup in hand, Godwin seated himself by Sidwell, who began by inquiring how the drive had pleased him. The fervour of his reply caused her to smile with special graciousness, and their conversation was uninterrupted for some minutes. Then Fanny came forward with a book of mosses, her own collection, which she had mentioned to Peak as they were talking together in the carriage.
'Do you make special study of any science?' Sidwell asked, when certain remarks of Godwin's had proved his familiarity with the things he was inspecting.
'It is long since I worked seriously at anything of the kind,' he answered; adding in a moment, 'except at chemistry -- that only because it is my business.'
'Organic or inorganic chemistry?' inquired Fanny, with the promptness of a schoolgirl who wishes to have it known that her ideas are no longer vague.
'Organic for the most part,' Godwin replied, smiling at her. 'And of the most disagreeable kind.'
Sidwell reflected, then put another question, but with some diffidence.
'I think you were once fond of geology?'
It was the first allusion to that beginning of their acquaintance, ten years ago. Peak succeeded in meeting her look with steadiness.
'Yes, I still like it.'
'Father's collections have been much improved since you saw them at Thornhaw.'
'I hope Mr Warricombe will let me see them.'
Buckland came up and made an apology for drawing his friend aside.
'Will you let us send for your traps? You may just as well have a room here for a night or two.'
Perpetually imagining some kind chance that might associate him with civilised people, Godwin could not even pack his portmanteau for a ramble to Land's End without stowing away a dress suit. He was thus saved what would have been an embarrassment of special annoyance. Without hesitation, he accepted Buckland's offer, and named the hotel at which the luggage was deposited.
'All right; the messenger shall explain. Our name's well enough known to them. If you would like to look up my father in his study, he'll be delighted to go over his collections with you. You still care for that kind of thing?'
'Most certainly. How can you doubt it?'
Buckland smiled, and gave no other reply.
'Ask Fanny to show you the way when you care to go.' And he left the room.
Sidwell had fallen into conversation with Mr Moorhouse. Miss Moorhouse, Mrs Warricombe, and Louis were grouped in animated talk. Observing that Fanny threw glances towards him from a lonely corner, Peak went over to her, and was pleased with the smile he met. Fanny had watched eyes, much brighter than Sidwell's; her youthful vivacity blended with an odd little fashion of schoolgirl pedantry in a very piquant way. Godwin's attempts at conversation with her were rather awkward; he found it difficult to strike the suitable note, something not too formal yet not deficient in respect.
'Do you think,' he asked presently, 'that I should disturb your father if I went to him?'
'Oh, not at all! I often go and sit in the study at this time.'
'Will you show me the way?'
Fanny at once rose, and together they crossed the hall, passed through a sort of anteroom connecting with a fernery, and came to the study door. A tap was answered by cheerful summons, and Fanny looked in.
'Well, my ladybird? Ah, you are bringing Mr Peak; come in, come in!'
It was a large and beautiful room, its wide windows, in a cushioned recess, looking upon the lawn where the yew tree cast solemn shade. One wall presented an unbroken array of volumes, their livery sober but handsome; detached bookcases occupied other portions of the irregular perimeter. Cabinets, closed and open, were arranged with due regard to convenience. Above the mantelpiece hung a few small photographs, but the wall-space at disposal was chiefly occupied with objects which illustrated Mr Warricombe's scientific tastes. On a stand in the light of the window gleamed two elaborate microscopes, provocative of enthusiasm in a mind such as Godwin's.
In a few minutes, Fanny silently retired. Her father, by no means forward to speak of himself and his pursuits, was led in that direction by Peak's expressions of interest, and the two were soon busied with matters which had a charm for both. A collection of elvans formed the starting-point, and when they had entered upon the wide field of palæontology it was natural for Mr Warricombe to invite his guest's attention to the species of homalonotus which he had had the happiness of identifying some ten years ago -- a discovery now recognised and chronicled. Though his sympathy was genuine enough, Godwin struggled against an uneasy sense of manifesting excessive appreciation. Never oblivious of himself, he could not utter the simplest phrase of admiration without criticising its justice, its tone. And at present it behoved him to bear in mind that he was conversing with no half-bred sciolist. Mr Warricombe obviously had his share of human weakness, but he was at once a gentleman and a student of well-stored mind; insincerity must be very careful if it would not jar upon his refined ear. So Godwin often checked himself in the utterance of what might sound too much like flattery. A young man talking with one much older, a poor man in dialogue with a wealthy, must under any circumstances guard his speech; for one of Godwin's aggressive idiosyncrasy the task of discretion had peculiar difficulties, and the attitude he had assumed at luncheon still further complicated the operations of his mind. Only at moments could he speak in his true voice, and silence meant for the most part a studious repression of much he would naturally have uttered.
Resurgent envy gave him no little trouble. On entering the room, he could not but exclaim to himself, 'How easy for a man to do notable work amid such surroundings! If I were but thus equipped for investigation!' And as often as his eyes left a particular object to make a general survey, the same thought burned in him. He feared lest it should be legible on his countenance.
Taking a pamphlet from the table, Mr Warricombe, with a humorous twinkle in his eyes, inquired whether Peak read German; the answer being affirmative:
'Naturally,' he rejoined, 'you could hardly have neglected so important a language. I, unfortunately, didn't learn it in my youth, and I have never had perseverance enough to struggle with it since. Something led me to take down this brochure the other day -- an old attempt of mine to write about the weathering of rocks. It was printed in '76, and no sooner had it seen the light than friends of mine wanted to know what I meant by appropriating, without acknowledgement, certain facts quite recently pointed out by Professor Pfaff of Erlangen! Unhappily, Professor Pfaff's results were quite unknown to me, and I had to get them translated. The coincidences, sure enough, were very noticeable. Just before you came in, I was reviving that old discomfiture.'
Peak, in glancing over the pages, murmured with a smile:
'Pereant qui ante nos nostra dixerunt!'
'Even so!' exclaimed Mr Warricombe, laughing with a subdued heartiness which was one of his pleasant characteristics. And, after a pause, he inquired, 'Do you find any time to keep up your classics?'
'By fits and starts. Sometimes I return to them for a month or two.'
'Why, it's pretty much the same with me. Here on my table, for instance, lies Tacitus. I found it mentioned not long ago that the first sentence of the Annals is a hexameter -- did you know it? -- and when I had once got hold of the book I thought it a shabby thing to return it to the dust of its shelf without reading at least a few pages. So I have gone on from day to day, with no little enjoyment. Buckland, as you probably know, regards these old fellows with scorn.'
'We always differed about that.'
'I can't quite decide whether he is still sincere in all he says about them. Time, I suspect, is mellowing his judgment.'
They moved to the shelves where Greek and Latin books stood in serried order, and only the warning dinner-bell put an end to their sympathetic discussion of the place such authors should hold in modern educational systems.
'Have they shown you your room?' Mr Warricombe asked.
But, as he spoke, the face of his eldest son appeared at the door.
'Your traps have safely arrived, Peak.'
The bedroom to which Godwin was conducted had a delicious fragrance, of source indeterminable. When he had closed the door, he stood for a few moments looking about him; it was his first experience of the upper chambers of houses such as this. Merely to step upon the carpet fluttered his senses: merely to breathe the air was a purification. Luxury of the rational kind, dictated by regard for health of body and soul, appeared in every detail. On the walls were water-colours, scenery of Devon and Cornwall; a hanging book-case held about a score of volumes poets, essayists, novelists. Elsewhere, not too prominent, lay a Bible and a Prayer-book.
He dressed, as never before, with leisurely enjoyment of the process. When the mirror declared him ready, his eyes returned frequently to an inspection of the figure he presented, and it seemed to him that he was not unworthy to take his place at the dinner-table. As for his visage, might he not console himself with the assurance that it was of no common stamp? 'If I met that man in a room, I should be curious about him; I should see at once that he didn't belong to the vulgar; I should desire to hear him speak.' And the Warricombes were not lacking in discernment. He would compare more than favourably with Mr Moorhouse, whose aspect, bright and agreeable enough, made no promise of originality. -- It must be time to go down. He left the room with an air of grave self-confidence.
At dinner he was careful to attempt no repetition of the display which had done very well at luncheon; it must not be thought that he had the habit of talking for effect. Mrs Warricombe, unless he mistook, had begun to view him more favourably; her remarks made less distinction between him and the other guests. But he could not like his hostess; he thought her unworthy to be the mother of Sidwell and Fanny, of Buckland and Louis; there was a marked strain of the commonplace in her. The girls, costumed for the evening, affected him with a return of the awe he had all but overcome. Sidwell was exquisite in dark colours, her sister in white. Miss Moorhouse (addressed by her friends as 'Sylvia') looked older than in the day-time, and had lost something of her animation; possibly the country routine had begun to weary her a little.
Peak was at a vast distance from the hour which saw him alight at Exeter and begin his ramble about the city. He no longer felt himself alone in the world; impossible to revive the mood in which he deliberately planned to consume his economies in a year or two of desert wandering; far other were the anticipations which warmed his mind when the after-dinner repose attuned him to unwonted hopefulness. This family were henceforth his friends, and it depended only upon himself to make the connection lasting, with all manner of benefits easily imagined. Established in the country, the Warricombes stood to him in quite a different relation from any that could have arisen had he met with them in London. There he would have been nothing more than a casual dinner-guest, welcomed for the hour and all but forgotten when he had said good-night. For years he had understood that London offered him no prospect of social advancement. But a night passed under this roof practically raised him to a level whence he surveyed a rich field of possible conquest. With the genial geologist he felt himself on excellent terms, and much of this was ascribable to a singular chance which had masked his real being, and represented him, with scarce an effort of his own, in a light peculiarly attractive to Mr Warricombe. He was now playing the conscious hypocrite; not a pleasant thing to face and accept, but the fault was not his -- fate had brought it about. At all events, he aimed at no vulgar profit; his one desire was for human fellowship; he sought nothing but that solace which every code of morals has deemed legitimate. Let the society which compelled to such an expedient bear the burden of its shame.
That must indeed have been a circle of great intellects amid which Godwin Peak felt himself subordinate. He had never known that impression, and in the Warricombe family was no one whom he could regard even as his equal. Buckland, doubtless, had some knowledge of the world, and could boast of a free mind; but he lacked subtlety: a psychological problem would easily puzzle him. Mr Warricombe's attainments were respectable, but what could be said of a man who had devoted his life to geology, and still (in the year 1884) remained an orthodox member of the Church of England? Godwin, as he sat in the drawing-room and enjoyed its atmosphere of refinement, sincerely held himself of far more account as an intellectual being than all the persons about him.
But if his brain must dwell in solitude his heart might compass worthy alliances -- the thing most needful to humanity. One may find the associates of his intellect in libraries -- the friend of one's emotions must walk in flesh and blood. Earwaker, Moxey -- these were in many respects admirable fellows, and he had no little love for them, but the world they represented was womanless, and so of flagrant imperfection. Of Marcella Moxey he could not think emotionally; indeed she emphasised by her personality the lack which caused his suffering. Sidwell Warricombe suggested, more completely than any woman he had yet observed, that companionship without which life must to the end taste bitter. His interest in her was not strictly personal; she moved and spoke before him as a typical woman, not as the daughter of Martin Warricombe and the sister of Buckland. Here at last opened to his view that sphere of female society which he had known as remotely existing, the desperate aim of ambition.
Conventional women -- but was not the phrase tautological? In the few females who have liberated their souls, was not much of the woman inevitably sacrificed, and would it not be so for long years to come? On the other hand, such a one as Sidwell might be held a perfect creature, perfect in relation to a certain stage of human development. Look at her, as she sat conversing with Moorhouse, soft candle-light upon her face; compare her on the one hand with an average emancipated girl, on the other with a daughter of the people. How unsatisfying was the former; the latter, how repulsive! Here one had the exquisite mean, the lady as England has perfected her towards the close of this nineteenth century. A being of marvellous delicacy, of purest instincts, of unsurpassable sweetness. Who could not detail her limitations, obvious and, in certain moods, irritating enough? These were nothing to the point, unless one would roam the world a hungry idealist; and Godwin was weary of the famined pilgrimage.
The murmur of amiable voices softened him to the reception of all that was good in his present surroundings, and justified in the light of sentiment his own dishonour. This English home, was it not surely the best result of civilisation in an age devoted to material progress? Here was peace, here was scope for the kindliest emotions. Upon him -- the born rebel, the scorner of average mankind, the consummate egoist -- this atmosphere exercised an influence more tranquillising, more beneficent, than even the mood of disinterested study. In the world to which sincerity would condemn him, only the worst elements of his character found nourishment and range; here he was humanised, made receptive of all gentle sympathies. Heroism might point him to an unending struggle with adverse conditions, but how was heroism possible without faith? Absolute faith he had none; he was essentially a negativist, guided by the mere relations of phenomena. Nothing easier than to contemn the mode of life represented by this wealthy middle class; but compare it with other existences conceivable by a thinking man, and it was emphatically good. It aimed at placidity, at benevolence, at supreme cleanliness, -- things which more than compensated for the absence of higher spirituality. We can be but what we are; these people accepted themselves, and in so doing became estimable mortals. No imbecile pretensions exposed them to the rebuke of a social satirist; no vulgarity tainted their familiar intercourse. Their allegiance to a worn-out creed was felt as an added grace; thus only could their souls aspire, and the imperfect poetry of their natures be developed.
He took an opportunity of seating himself by Mrs Warricombe, with whom as yet he had held no continuous dialogue.
'Has there been anything of interest at the London theatres lately?' she asked.
'I know so little of them,' Godwin replied, truthfully. 'It must be several years since I saw a play.'
'Then in that respect you have hardly become a Londoner.'
'Nor in any other, I believe,' said Peak, with a smile. 'I have lived there ten years, but am far from regarding London as my home. I hope a few months more will release me from it altogether.'
'Indeed! -- Perhaps you think of leaving England?'
'I should be very sorry to do that -- for any length of time. My wish is to settle somewhere in the country, and spend a year or two in quiet study.'
Mrs Warricombe looked amiable surprise, but corrected herself to approving interest.
'I have heard some of our friends say that their minds get unstrung, if they are long away from town, but I should have thought that country quietness would be much better than London noise. My husband certainly finds it so.'
'People are very differently constituted,' said Godwin. 'And then it depends much on the nature of one's work.'
Uttering these commonplaces with an air of reflection, he observed that they did not cost him the self-contempt which was wont to be his penalty for concession to the terms of polite gossip; rather, his mind accepted with gratitude this rare repose. He tasted something of the tranquil self-content which makes life so enjoyable when one has never seen a necessity for shaping original remarks. No one in this room would despise him for a platitude, were it but recommended with a pleasant smile. With the Moxeys, with Earwaker, he durst not thus have spoken.
When the hour of separation was at hand, Buckland invited his guest to retire with him to a part of the house where they could smoke and chat comfortably.
'Moorhouse and Louis are fagged after their twenty mile stretch this morning; I have caught both of them nodding during the last few minutes. We can send them to bed without apology.'
He led the way upstairs to a region of lumber-rooms, whence a narrow flight of steps brought them into a glass-house, octangular and with pointed tops, out upon the roof. This, he explained, had been built some twenty years ago, at a time when Mr Warricombe amused himself with photography. A few indications of its original purposes were still noticeable; an easel and a box of oil-colours showed that someone -- doubtless of the younger generation -- had used it as a painting-room; a settee and deep cane chairs made it an inviting lounge on a warm evening like the present, when, by throwing open a hinged wall, one looked forth into the deep sky and tasted the air from the sea.
'Sidwell used to paint a little,' said Buckland, as his companion bent to examine a small canvas on which a landscape was roughed in. It lay on a side table, and was half concealed by an ordnance map, left unfolded. 'For the last year or two I think she has given it up. I'm afraid we are not strong in matters of art. Neither of the girls can play very well, though of course they both tinkle for their own amusement. Maurice -- the poor lad who was killed -- gave a good deal of artistic promise; father keeps some little water-colours of his, which men in that line have praised -- perhaps sincerely.'
'I remember you used to speak slightingly of art,' said Godwin, as he took an offered cigar.
'Did I? And of a good many other things, I daresay. It was my habit at one time, I believe, to grow heated in scorn of Euclid's definitions. What an interesting book Euclid is! Half a year ago, I was led by a talk with Moorhouse to go through some of the old "props", and you can't imagine how they delighted me. Moorhouse was so obliging as to tell me that I had an eminently deductive mind.'
He laughed, but not without betraying some pleasure in the remark.
'Surprising,' he went on, 'how very little such a mind as Moorhouse's suggests itself in common conversation. He is really profound in mathematics, a man of original powers, but I never heard him make a remark of the slightest value on any other subject. Now his sister -- she has studied nothing in particular, yet she can't express an opinion that doesn't bear the stamp of originality.'
Godwin was contented to muse, his eyes fixed on a brilliant star in the western heaven.
'There's only one inconsistency in her that annoys and puzzles me,' Buckland pursued, speaking with the cigar in his mouth. 'In religion, she seems to be orthodox. True, we have never spoken on the subject, but -- well, she goes to church, and carries prayer-books. I don't know how to explain it. Hypocrisy is the last thing one could suspect her of. I'm sure she hates it in every form. And such a clear brain! -- I can't understand it.'
The listener was still star-gazing. He had allowed his cigar, after the first few puffs, to smoulder untasted; his lips were drawn into an expression very unlike the laxity appropriate to pleasurable smoking. When the murmur of the pines had for a moment been audible, he said, with a forced smile:
'I notice you take for granted that a clear brain and religious orthodoxy are incompatible.'
The other gave him a keen look.
'Hardly,' was Buckland's reply, spoken with less ingenuousness of tone than usual. 'I say that Miss Moorhouse has undeniably a strong mind, and that it is impossible to suspect her of the slightest hypocrisy.'
'Whence the puzzle that keeps you occupied,' rejoined Peak, in a voice that sounded like assumption of superiority, though the accent had an agreeable softness.
Warricombe moved as if impatiently, struck a match to rekindle his weed, blew tumultuous clouds, and finally put a blunt question:
'What do you think about it yourself?'
'From my point of view, there is no puzzle at all,' Godwin replied, in a very clear voice, smiling as he met the other's look.
'How am I to understand that?' asked Buckland, good-naturedly, though with a knitting of his brows.
'Not as a doubt of Miss Moorhouse's sincerity. I can't see that a belief in the Christian religion is excluded by any degree of intellectual clearness.'
'No -- your views have changed, Peak?'
'On many subjects, this among them.'
The words fell as if involuntarily from Warricombe's lips. He gazed at the floor awhile, then, suddenly looking up, exclaimed:
'It would be civil to accept this without surprise, but it is too much for me. How has it come about?'
'That would take me a long time to explain.'
'Then,' pursued his companion, watching him closely, 'you were quite in sympathy with that exposition you gave at lunch today?'
'Quite. I hope there was nothing in my way of speaking that made you think otherwise?'
'Nothing at all. I couldn't help wondering what it meant. You seemed perfectly in earnest, yet such talk had the oddest sound on your lips -- to me, I mean. Of course I thought of you as I used to know you.'
'Naturally.' Peak was now in an attitude of repose, his legs crossed, thumb and forefinger stroking his chin. 'I couldn't very well turn aside to comment on my own mental history.'
Here again was the note of something like genial condescension. Buckland seemed sensible of it, and slightly raised his eyebrows.
'I am to understand that you have become strictly orthodox in matters of religious faith?'
'The proof is,' replied Godwin, 'that I hope before long to take Orders.'
Again there was silence, and again the sea-breath made its whispering in the pines. Warricombe, with a sudden gesture, pointed towards the sky.
'A shooting star -- one of the brightest I ever saw!'
'I missed it,' said Peak, just glancing in that direction.
The interruption enabled Buckland to move his chair; in this new position he was somewhat further from Peak, and had a better view of his face.
'I should never have imagined you a clergyman,' he said, thoughtfully, 'but I can see that your mind has been developing powers in that direction. -- Well, so be it! I can only hope you have found your true work in life.'
'But you doubt it?'
'I can't say that I doubt it, as I can't understand you. To be sure, we have been parted for many years. In some respects I must seem much changed' --
'Greatly changed,' Godwin put in, promptly.
'Yes,' pursued the other, correctively, 'but not in a way that would seem incredible to anyone whatever. I am conscious of growth in tolerance, but my attitude in essentials is unchanged. Thinking of you -- as I have often enough done -- I always kept the impression you made on me when we were both lads; you seemed most distinctly a modern mind -- one of the most modern that ever came under my notice. Now, I don't find it impossible to understand my father, when he reconciles science with religion; he was born sixty years ago. But Godwin Peak as a -- a --'
'Parson,' supplied Peak, drily.
'Yes, as a parson -- I shall have to meditate much before I grasp the notion.'
'Perhaps you have dropped your philosophical studies?' said Godwin, with a smile of courteous interest.
'I don't know. Metaphysics have no great interest for me, but I philosophise in a way. I thought myself a student of human nature, at all events.'
'But you haven't kept up with philosophical speculation on the points involved in orthodox religion?'
'I confess my ignorance of everything of the kind -- unless you include Bishop Blougram among the philosophers?'
Godwin bore the gaze which accompanied this significant inquiry. For a moment he smiled, but there followed an expression of gravity touched with pain.
'I hadn't thought of broaching this matter,' he said, with slow utterance, but still in a tone of perfect friendliness. 'Let us put it aside.'
Warricombe seemed to make an effort, and his next words had the accent of well-bred consideration which distinguished his ordinary talk.
'Pray forgive my bad joke. I merely meant that I have no right whatever to argue with anyone who has given serious attention to such things. They are altogether beyond my sphere. I was born an agnostic, and no subtlety of demonstration could incline me for a moment to theological views; my intellect refuses to admit a single preliminary of such arguments. You astonish me, and that's all I am justified in saying.'
'My dear Warricombe, you are justified in saying whatever your mind suggests. That is one of the principles which I hold unaltered -- let me be quite frank with you. I should never have decided upon such a step as this, but for the fact that I have managed to put by a small sum of money which will make me independent for two or three years. Till quite lately I hadn't a thought of using my freedom in this way; it was clear to me that I must throw over the old drudgery at Rotherhithe, but this resolve which astonishes you had not yet ripened -- I saw it only as one of the possibilities of my life. Well, now, it's only too true that there's something of speculation in my purpose; I look to the Church, not only as a congenial sphere of activity, but as a means of subsistence. In a man of no fortune this is inevitable; I hope there is nothing to be ashamed of. Even if the conditions of the case allowed it, I shouldn't present myself for ordination forthwith; I must study and prepare myself in quietness. How the practical details will be arranged, I can't say; I have no family influence, and I must hope to make friends who will open a way for me. I have always lived apart from society; but that isn't natural to me, and it becomes more distasteful the older I grow. The probability is that I shall settle somewhere in the country, where I can live decently on a small income. After all, it's better I should have let you know this at once. I only realised a few minutes ago that to be silent about my projects was in a way to be guilty of false pretences.'
The adroitness of this last remark, which directed itself, with such show of candour, against a suspicion precisely the opposite of that likely to be entertained by the listener, succeeded in disarming Warricombe; he looked up with a smile of reassurance, and spoke encouragingly.
'About the practical details I don't think you need have any anxiety. It isn't every day that the Church of England gets such a recruit. Let me suggest that you have a talk with my father.'
Peak reflected on the proposal, and replied to it with grave thoughtfulness:
'That's very kind of you, but I should have a difficulty in asking Mr Warricombe's advice. I'm afraid I must go on in my own way for a time. It will be a few months, I daresay, before I can release myself from my engagements in London.'
'But I am to understand that your mind is really made up?'
'Well, no doubt we shall have opportunities of talking. We must meet in town, if possible. You have excited my curiosity, and I can't help hoping you'll let me see a little further into your mind some day. When I first got hold of Newman's Apologia, I began to read it with the utmost eagerness, flattering myself that now at length I should understand how a man of brains could travel such a road. I was horribly disappointed, and not a little enraged, when I found that he began by assuming the very beliefs I thought he was going to justify. In you I shall hope for more logic.'
'Newman is incapable of understanding such an objection,' said Peak, with a look of amusement.
'But you are not.'
The dialogue grew chatty. When they exchanged good-night, Peak fancied that the pressure of Buckland's hand was less fervent than at their meeting, but his manner no longer seemed to indicate distrust. Probably the agnostic's mood was one of half-tolerant disdain.
Godwin turned the key in his bedroom door, and strayed aimlessly about. He was fatigued, but the white, fragrant bed did not yet invite him; a turbulence in his brain gave warning that it would be long before he slept. He wound up his watch; the hands pointed to twelve. Chancing to come before the mirror, he saw that he was unusually pale, and that his eyes had a swollen look.
The profound stillness was oppressive to him; he started nervously at an undefined object in a dim corner, and went nearer to examine it; he was irritable, vaguely discontented, and had even a moment of nausea, perhaps the result of tobacco stronger than he was accustomed to smoke. After leaning for five minutes at the open window, he felt a soothing effect from the air, and could think consecutively of the day's events. What had happened seemed to him incredible; it was as though he revived a mad dream, of ludicrous coherence. Since his display of rhetoric at luncheon all was downright somnambulism. What fatal power had subdued him? What extraordinary influence had guided his tongue, constrained his features? His conscious self had had no part in all this comedy; now for the first time was he taking count of the character he had played.
Had he been told this morning that -- Why, what monstrous folly was all this? Into what unspeakable baseness had he fallen? Happily, he had but to take leave of the Warricombe household, and rush into some region where he was unknown. Years hence, he would relate the story to Earwaker.
For a long time he suffered the torments of this awakening. shame buffeted him on the right cheek and the left; he looked about like one who slinks from merited chastisement. Oh, thrice ignoble varlet! To pose with unctuous hypocrisy before people who had welcomed him under their roof, unquestioned, with all the grace and kindliness of English hospitality! To lie shamelessly in the face of his old fellow-student, who had been so genuinely glad to meet him again!
Yet such possibility had not been unforeseen. At the times of his profound gloom, when solitude and desire crushed his spirit, he had wished that fate would afford him such an opportunity of knavish success. His imagination had played with the idea that a man like himself might well be driven to this expedient, and might even use it with life-long result. Of a certainty, the Church numbered such men among her priests, -- not mere lukewarm sceptics who made religion a source of income, nor yet those who had honestly entered the portal and by necessity were held from withdrawing, though their convictions had changed; but deliberate schemers from the first, ambitious but hungry natures, keen-sighted, unscrupulous. And they were at no loss to defend themselves against the attack of conscience. Life is a terrific struggle for all who begin it with no endowments save their brains. A hypocrite was not necessarily a harm-doer; easy to picture the unbelieving priest whose influence was vastly for good, in word and deed.
But he, he who had ever prided himself on his truth-fronting intellect, and had freely uttered his scorn of the credulous mob! He who was his own criterion of moral right and wrong! No wonder he felt like a whipped cur. It was the ancestral vice in his blood, brought out by over-tempting circumstance. The long line of base-born predecessors, the grovelling hinds and mechanics of his genealogy, were responsible for this. Oh for a name wherewith honour was hereditary!
His eyes were blinded by a rush of hot tears. Down, down -- into the depths of uttermost despondency, of self-pity and self-contempt! Had it been practicable, he would have fled from the house, leaving its occupants to think of him as they would; even as, ten years ago, he had fled from the shame impending over him at Kingsmill. A cowardly instinct, this; having once acted upon it gave to his whole life a taint of craven meanness. Mere bluster, all his talk of mental dignity and uncompromising scorn of superstitions. A weak and idle man, whose best years were already wasted!
He gazed deliberately at himself in the glass, at his red eyelids and unsightly lips. Darkness was best; perhaps he might forget his shame for an hour or two, ere the dawn renewed it. He threw off his garments heedlessly, extinguished the lamp, and crept into the ready hiding-place.
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