Born in Exile
Part the Fourth[I] [II] [III] [IV] [V]
Earwaker's struggle with the editor-in-chief of The Weekly Post and the journalist Kenyon came to its natural close about a month after Godwin Peak's disappearance. Only a vein of obstinacy in his character had kept him so long in a position he knew to be untenable. From the first his sympathy with Mr Runcorn's politics had been doubtful, and experience of the working of a Sunday newspaper, which appealed to the ignobly restive, could not encourage his adhesion to this form of Radicalism. He anticipated dismissal by retirement, and Kenyon, a man of coarsely vigorous fibre, at once stepped into his place.
Now that he had leisure to review the conflict, Earwaker understood that circumstances had but hastened his transition from a moderate ardour in the parliamentary cause of the people, to a regretful neutrality regarding all political movements. Birth allied him with the proletarian class, and his sentiment in favour of democracy was unendangered by the disillusions which must come upon every intellectual man brought into close contact with public affairs. The course of an education essentially aristocratic (Greek and Latin can have no other tendency so long as they are the privilege of the few) had not affected his natural bent, nor was he the man to be driven into reaction because of obstacles to his faith inseparable from human weakness. He had learnt that the emancipation of the poor and untaught must proceed more slowly than he once hoped -- that was all. Restored to generous calm, he could admit that such men as Runcorn and Kenyon -- the one with his polyarchic commercialism, the other with his demagogic violence -- had possibly a useful part to play at the present stage of things. He, however, could have no place in that camp. Too indiscreetly he had hoisted his standard of idealism, and by stubborn resistance of insuperable forces he had merely brought forward the least satisfactory elements of his own character. 'Hold on!' cried Malkin. 'Fight the grovellers to the end!' But Earwaker had begun to see himself in a light of ridicule. There was just time to save his self-respect.
He was in no concern for his daily bread. With narrower resources in the world of print, he might have been compelled, like many another journalist, to swallow his objections and write as Runcorn dictated; for the humble folks at home could not starve to allow him the luxury of conscientiousness, whatever he might have been disposed to do on his own account. Happily, his pen had a scope beyond politics, and by working steadily for reviews, with which he was already connected, he would be able to keep his finances in reasonable order until, perchance, some hopeful appointment offered itself. In a mood of much cheerfulness he turned for ever from party uproar, and focused his mind upon those interests of humanity which so rarely coincide with the aims of any league among men.
Half a year went by, and at length he granted himself a short holiday, the first in a twelvemonth. It took the form of a voyage to Marseilles, and thence of a leisurely ramble up the Rhône. Before returning, he spent a day or two in Paris, for the most part beneath cafe' awnings, or on garden seats -- an indulgence of contented laziness.
On the day of his departure, he climbed the towers of Notre Dame, and lingered for half-an-hour in pleasant solitude among the stone monsters. His reverie was broken by an English voice, loud and animated:
'Come and look at this old demon of a bird; he has always been a favourite of mine. -- Sure you're not tired, Miss Bella? When you want to rest, Miss Lily, mind you say so at once. What a day! What a sky! -- When I was last up here I had my hat blown away. I watched it as far as Montmartre. A fact! Never knew such a wind in my life -- unless it was that tornado I told you about -- Hollo! By the powers, if that isn't Earwaker! Confound you, old fellow! How the deuce do you do? What a glorious meeting! Hadn't the least idea where you were! -- Let me have the pleasure of introducing you to Mrs Jacox -- and to Miss Jacox -- and to Miss Lily. They all know you thoroughly well. Now who would have thought of our meeting up here! Glorious!'
It was with some curiosity that Earwaker regarded the companions of his friend Malkin -- whose proximity was the last thing he could have imagined, as only a few weeks ago he had heard of the restless fellow's departing, on business unknown, for Boston, US. Mrs Jacox, the widow whose wrongs had made such an impression on Malkin, announced herself, in a thin, mealy face and rag-doll figure, as not less than forty, though her irresponsible look made it evident that years profited her nothing, and suggested an explanation of the success with which she had been victimised. She was stylishly dressed, and had the air of enjoying an unusual treat. Her children were of more promising type, though Earwaker would hardly have supposed them so old as he knew them to be. Bella, just beyond her fourteenth year, had an intelligent prettiness, but was excessively shy; in giving her hand to the stranger she flushed over face and neck, and her bosom palpitated visibly. Her sister, two years younger, was a mere child, rather self-conscious, but of laughing temper. Their toilet suited ill with that of their mother; its plainness and negligence might have passed muster in London, but here, under the lucent sky, it seemed a wrong to their budding maidenhood.
'Mrs Jacox is on the point of returning to England,' Malkin explained. 'I happened to meet her, by chance -- I'm always meeting my friends by chance; you, for instance, Earwaker. She is so good as to allow me to guide her and the young ladies to a few of the sights of Paris.'
'O Mr Malkin!' exclaimed the widow, with a stress on the exclamation peculiar to herself -- two notes of deprecating falsetto. 'How can you say it is good of me, when I'm sure there are no words for your kindness to us all! If only you knew our debt to your friend, Mr Earwaker! To our dying day we must all remember it. It is entirely through Mr Malkin that we are able to leave that most disagreeable Rouen -- a place I shall never cease to think of with horror. O Mr Earwaker! you have only to think of that wretched railway station, stuck between two black tunnels! O Mr Malkin!'
'What are you doing?' Malkin inquired of the journalist. 'How long shall you be here? Why haven't I heard from you?'
'I go to London to-night.'
'And we to-morrow. On Friday I'll look you up. Stay, can't you dine with me this evening? Anywhere you like. These ladies will be glad to be rid of me, and to dine in peace at their hotel.'
'O Mr Malkin!' piped the widow, 'you know how very far that is from the truth. But we shall be very glad indeed to know that you are enjoying yourself with Mr Earwaker.'
The friends made an appointment to meet near the Madeleine, and Earwaker hastened to escape the sound of Mrs Jacox's voice.
Punctual at the rendezvous, Malkin talked with his wonted effusiveness as he led towards the Café Anglais.
'I've managed it, my boy! The most complete success! I had to run over to Boston to get hold of a scoundrelly relative of that poor woman. You should have seen how I came over him -- partly dignified sternness, partly justifiable cajolery. The affair only wanted some one to take it up in earnest. I have secured her about a couple of hundred a year -- withheld on the most paltry and transparent pretences. They're going to live at Wrotham, in Kent, where Mrs Jacox has friends. I never thought myself so much of a man of business. Of course old Haliburton, the lawyer, had a hand in it, but without my personal energy it would have taken him a year longer. What do you think of the girls? How do you like Bella?'
'A pretty child.'
'Child? Well, yes, yes -- immature of course; but I'm rather in the habit of thinking of her as a young lady. In three years she'll be seventeen, you know. Of course you couldn't form a judgment of her character. She's quite remarkably mature for her age; and, what delights me most of all, a sturdy Radical! She takes the most intelligent interest in all political and social movements, I assure you! There's a great deal of democratic fire in her.'
'You're sure it isn't reflected from your own fervour?'
'Not a bit of it! You should have seen her excitement when we were at the Bastille Column yesterday. She'll make a splendid woman, I assure you. Lily's very interesting, too -- profoundly interesting. But then she is certainly very young, so I can't feel so sure of her on the great questions. She hasn't her sister's earnestness, I fancy.'
In the after-glow of dinner, Malkin became still more confidential.
'You remember what I said to you long since? My mind is made up -- practically made up. I shall devote myself to Bella's education, in the hope -- you understand me? Impossible to have found a girl who suited better with my aspirations. She has known the hardships of poverty, poor thing, and that will keep her for ever in sympathy with the downtrodden classes. She has a splendid intelligence, and it shall be cultivated to the utmost.'
'One word,' said Earwaker, soberly. 'We have heard before of men who waited for girls to grow up. Be cautious, my dear fellow, both on your own account and hers.'
'My dear Earwaker! Don't imagine for a moment that I take it for granted she will get to be fond of me. My attitude is one of the most absolute discretion. You must have observed how I behaved to them all -- scrupulous courtesy, I trust; no more familiarity than any friend might be permitted. I should never dream of addressing the girls without ceremonious prefix -- never! I talk of Bella's education, but be assured that I regard my own as a matter of quite as much importance. I mean, that I shall strive incessantly to make myself worthy of her. No laxity! For these next three years I shall live as becomes a man who has his eyes constantly on a high ideal -- the pure and beautiful girl whom he humbly hopes to win for a wife.'
The listener was moved. He raised his wine-glass to conceal the smile which might have been misunderstood. In his heart he felt more admiration than had yet mingled with his liking for this strange fellow.
'And Mrs Jacox herself,' pursued Malkin; 'she has her weaknesses, as we all have. I don't think her a very strong-minded woman, to tell the truth. But there's a great deal of goodness in her. If there's one thing I desire in people, it is the virtue of gratitude, and Mrs Jacox is grateful almost to excess for the paltry exertions I have made on her behalf. You know that kind of thing costs me nothing; you know I like running about and getting things done. But the poor woman imagines that I have laid her under an eternal obligation. Of course I shall show her in time that it was nothing at all; that she might have done just as much for herself if she had known how to go about it.'
Earwaker was musing, a wrinkle of uneasiness at the corner of his eye.
'She isn't the kind of woman, you know, one can regard as a mother. But we are the best possible friends. She may, perhaps, think of me as a possible son-in-law. Poor thing; I hope she does. Perhaps it will help to put her mind at rest about the girls.'
'Then shall you often be down at Wrotham?' inquired the journalist, abstractedly.
'Oh, not often -- that is to say, only once a month or so, just to look in. I wanted to ask you: do you think I might venture to begin a correspondence with Bella?'
'M--m--m! I can't say.'
'It would be so valuable, you know. I could suggest books for her reading; I could help her in her study of politics, and so on.'
'Well, think about it. But be cautious, I beg of you. Now I must be off. Only just time enough to get my traps to the station.'
'I'll come with you. Gare du Nord? Oh, plenty of time, plenty of time! Nothing so abominable as waiting for trains. I make a point of never getting to the station more than three minutes before time. Astonishing what one can do in three minutes! I want to tell you about an adventure I had in Boston. Met a fellow so devilish like Peak that I couldn't believe it wasn't he himself. I spoke to him, but he swore that he knew not the man. Never saw such a likeness!'
'Curious. It may have been Peak.'
'By all that's suspicious, I can't help thinking the same! He had an English accent, too.'
'Queer business, this of Peak's. I hope I may live to hear the end of the story.'
They left the restaurant, and in a few hours Earwaker was again on English soil.
At Staple Inn a pile of letters awaited him, among them a note from Christian Moxey, asking for an appointment as soon as possible after the journalist's return. Earwaker at once sent an invitation, and on the next evening Moxey came. An intimacy had grown up between the two, since the mysterious retreat of their common friend. Christian was at first lost without the companionship of Godwin Peak; he forsook his studies, and fell into a state of complete idleness which naturally fostered his tendency to find solace in the decanter. With Earwaker, he could not talk as unreservedly as with Peak, but on the other hand there was a tonic influence in the journalist's personality which he recognised as beneficial. Earwaker was steadily making his way in the world, lived a life of dignified independence. What was the secret of these strong, calm natures? Might it not be learnt by studious inspection?
'How well you look!' Christian exclaimed, on entering. 'We enjoyed your Provencal letter enormously. That's a ramble I have always meant to do. Next year perhaps.'
'Why not this? Haven't you got into a dangerous habit of postponement?'
'Yes, I'm afraid I have. But, by-the-bye, no news of Peak, I suppose?'
Earwaker related the story he had heard from Malkin, adding:
'You must remember that they met only once in London; Malkin might very well mistake another man for Peak.'
'Yes,' replied the other musingly. 'Yet it isn't impossible that Peak has gone over there. If so, what on earth can he be up to? Why should he hide from his friends?'
'Cherchez la femme,' said the journalist, with a smile. 'I can devise no other explanation.'
'But I can't see that it would be an explanation at all. Grant even -- something unavowable, you know -- are we Puritans? How could it harm him, at all events, to let us know his whereabouts? No such mystery ever came into my experience. It is too bad of Peak; it's confoundedly unkind.'
'Suppose he has found it necessary to assume a character wholly fictitious -- or, let us say, quite inconsistent with his life and opinions as known to us?'
This was a fruitful suggestion, long in Earwaker's mind, but not hitherto communicated. Christian did not at once grasp its significance.
'How could that be necessary? Peak is no swindler. You don't imply that he is engaged in some fraud?'
'Not in the ordinary sense, decidedly. But picture some girl or woman of conventional opinions and surroundings. What if he resolved to win such a wife, at the expense of disguising his true self?'
'But what an extraordinary idea!' cried Moxey. 'Why Peak is all but a woman-hater!'
The journalist uttered croaking laughter.
'Have I totally misunderstood him?' asked Christian, confused and abashed.
'I think it not impossible.'
'You amaze me! -- But no, no; you are wrong, Earwaker. Wrong in your suggestion, I mean. Peak could never sink to that. He is too uncompromising' ----
'Well, it will be explained some day, I suppose.'
And with a shrug of impatience, the journalist turned to another subject. He, too, regretted his old friend's disappearance, and in a measure resented it. Godwin Peak was not a man to slip out of one's life and leave no appreciable vacancy. Neither of these men admired him, in the true sense of the word, yet had his voice sounded at the door both would have sprung up with eager welcome. He was a force -- and how many such beings does one encounter in a lifetime?
In different ways, Christian and Marcella Moxey had both been lonely since their childhood. As a schoolgirl, Marcella seemed to her companions conceited and repellent; only as the result of reflection in after years did Sylvia Moorhouse express so favourable an opinion of her. In all things she affected singularity; especially it was her delight to utter democratic and revolutionary sentiments among hearers who, belonging to a rigidly conservative order, held such opinions impious. Arrived at womanhood, she affected scorn of the beliefs and habits cherished by her own sex, and shrank from association with the other. Godwin Peak was the first man with whom she conversed in the tone of friendship, and it took a year or more before that point was reached. As her intimacy with him established itself, she was observed to undergo changes which seemed very significant in the eyes of her few acquaintances. Disregard of costume had been one of her characteristics, but now she moved gradually towards the opposite extreme, till her dresses were occasionally more noticeable for richness than for good taste.
Christian, for kindred reasons, was equally debarred from the pleasures and profits of society. At school, his teachers considered him clever, his fellows for the most part looked down upon him as a sentimental weakling. The death of his parents, when he was still a lad, left him to the indifferent care of a guardian nothing akin to him. He began life in an uncongenial position, and had not courage to oppose the drift of circumstances. The romantic attachment which absorbed his best years naturally had a debilitating effect, for love was never yet a supporter of the strenuous virtues, save when it has survived fruition and been blessed by reason. In most men a fit of amorous mooning works its own cure; energetic rebound is soon inevitable. But Christian was so constituted that a decade of years could not exhaust his capacity for sentimental languishment. He made it a point of honour to seek no female companionship which could imperil his faith. Unfortunately, this avoidance of the society which would soon have made him a happy renegade, was but too easy. Marcella and he practically encouraged each other in a life of isolation, though to both of them such an existence was anything but congenial. Their difficulties were of the same nature as those which had always beset Godwin Peak; they had no relatives with whom they cared to associate, and none of the domestic friends who, in the progress of time, establish and extend a sphere of genuine intimacy.
Most people who are capable of independent thought rapidly outgrow the stage when compromise is abhorred; they accept, at first reluctantly, but ere long with satisfaction, that code of polite intercourse which, as Steele says, is 'an expedient to make fools and wise men equal'. It was Marcella's ill-fate that she could neither learn tolerance nor persuade herself to affect it. The emancipated woman has fewer opportunities of relieving her mind than a man in corresponding position; if her temper be aggressive she must renounce general society, and, if not content to live alone, ally herself with some group of declared militants. By correspondence, or otherwise, Marcella might have brought herself into connection with women of a sympathetic type, but this effort she had never made. And chiefly because of her acquaintance with Godwin Peak. In him she concentrated her interests; he was the man to whom her heart went forth with every kind of fervour. So long as there remained a hope of moving him to reciprocal feeling she did not care to go in search of female companions. Year after year she sustained herself in solitude by this faint hope. She had lost sight of the two or three schoolfellows who, though not so zealous as herself, would have welcomed her as an interesting acquaintance; and the only woman who assiduously sought her was Mrs Morton, the wife of one of Christian's friends, a good-natured but silly person bent on making known that she followed the 'higher law'.
Godwin's disappearance sank her in profound melancholy. Through the black weeks of January and February she scarcely left the house, and on the plea of illness refused to see any one but her brother. Between Christian and her there was no avowed confidence, but each knew the other's secret; their mutual affection never spoke itself in words, yet none the less it was indispensable to their lives. Deprived of his sister's company, Christian must have yielded to the vice which had already too strong a hold upon him, and have become a maudlin drunkard. Left to herself, Marcella had but slender support against a grim temptation already beckoning her in nights of sleeplessness. Of the two, her nature was the more tragic. Circumstances aiding, Christian might still forget his melancholy, abandon the whisky bottle, and pass a lifetime of amiable uxoriousness, varied with scientific enthusiasm. But for Marcella, frustrate in the desire with which every impulse of her being had identified itself, what future could be imagined?
When a day or two of sunlight (the rays through a semi-opaque atmosphere which London has to accept with gratitude) had announced that the seven-months' winter was overcome, and when the newspapers began to speak, after their fashion, of pictures awaiting scrutiny, Christian exerted himself to rouse his sister from her growing indolence. He succeeded in taking her to the Academy. Among the works of sculpture, set apart for the indifference of the public, was a female head, catalogued as 'A Nihilist' -- in itself interesting, and specially so to Marcella, because it was executed by an artist whose name she recognised as that of a schoolmate, Agatha Walworth. She spoke of the circumstance to Christian, and added:
'I should like to have that. Let us go and see the price.'
The work was already sold. Christian, happy that his sister could be aroused to this interest, suggested that a cast might be obtainable.
'Write to Miss Walworth,' he urged. 'Bring yourself to her recollection. -- I should think she must be the right kind of woman.'
Though at the time she shook her head, Marcella was presently tempted to address a letter to the artist, who responded with friendly invitation. In this way a new house was opened to her; but, simultaneously, one more illusion was destroyed. Knowing little of life, and much of literature, she pictured Miss Walworth as inhabiting a delightful Bohemian world, where the rules of conventionalism had no existence, and everything was judged by the brain-standard. Modern French biographies supplied all her ideas of studio society. She prepared herself for the first visit with a joyous tremor, wondering whether she would be deemed worthy to associate with the men and women who lived for art. The reality was a shock. In a large house at Chiswick she found a gathering of most respectable English people, chatting over the regulation tea-cup; not one of them inclined to disregard the dictates of Mrs Grundy in dress, demeanour, or dialogue. Agatha Walworth lived with her parents and her sisters like any other irreproachable young woman. She had a nice little studio, and worked at modelling with a good deal of aptitude; but of Bohemia she knew nothing whatever, save by hearsay. Her 'Nihilist' was no indication of a rebellious spirit; some friend had happened to suggest that a certain female model, a Russian, would do very well for such a character, and the hint was tolerably well carried out -- nothing more. Marcella returned in a mood of contemptuous disappointment. The cast she had desired to have was shortly sent to her as a gift, but she could take no pleasure in it.
Still, she saw more of the Walworths and found them not illiberal. Agatha was intelligent, and fairly well read in modern authors; no need to conceal one's opinions in conversation with her. Marcella happened to be spending the evening with these acquaintances whilst her brother was having his chat at Staple Inn; on her return, she mentioned to Christian that she had been invited to visit the Walworths in Devonshire a few weeks hence.
'Go, by all means,' urged her brother.
'I don't think I shall. They are too respectable.'
'Nonsense! They seem very open-minded; you really can't expect absolute unconventionality. Is it desirable? Really is it, now? -- Suppose I were to marry some day, Marcella; do you think my household would be unconventional?'
His voice shook a little, and he kept his eyes averted. Marcella, to whom her brother's romance was anything but an agreeable subject, -- the slight acquaintance she had with the modern Laura did not encourage her to hope for that lady's widowhood, -- gave no heed to the question.
'They are going to have a house at Budleigh Salterton; do you know of the place? Somewhere near the mouth of the Exe. Miss Walworth tells me that one of our old school friends is living there -- Sylvia Moorhouse. Did I ever mention Sylvia? She had gleams of sense, I remember; but no doubt society has drilled all that out of her.'
'Why?' he urged. 'Society is getting more tolerant than you are disposed to think. Very few well-educated people would nowadays object to an acquaintance on speculative grounds. Some one -- who was it? -- was telling me of a recent marriage between the daughter of some well-known Church people and a man who made no secret of his agnosticism; the parents acquiescing cheerfully. The one thing still insisted on is decency of behaviour.'
Marcella's eyes flashed.
'How can you say that? You know quite well that most kinds of immorality are far more readily forgiven by people of the world than sincere heterodoxy on moral subjects.'
'Well, well, I meant decency from their point of view. And there really must be such restrictions, you know. How very few people are capable of what you call sincere heterodoxy, in morals or religion! Your position is unphilosophical; indeed it is. Take the world as you find it, and make friends with kind, worthy people. You have suffered from a needless isolation. Do accept this opportunity of adding to your acquaintances! -- Do, Marcella! I shall take it as a great kindness, dear girl.'
His sister let her head lie back against the chair, her face averted. A stranger seated in Christian's place, regarding Marcella whilst her features were thus hidden, would have thought it probable that she was a woman of no little beauty. Her masses of tawny hair, her arms and hands, the pose and outline of her figure, certainly suggested a countenance of corresponding charm, and the ornate richness of her attire aided such an impression. This thought came to Christian as he gazed at her; his eyes, always so gentle, softened to a tender compassion. As the silence continued, he looked uneasily about him; when at length he spoke, it was as though a matter of trifling moment had occurred to him.
'By-the-bye, I am told that Malkin (Earwaker's friend, you know) saw Peak not long ago -- in America.'
Marcella did not change her position, but at the sound of Peak's name she stirred, as if with an intention, at once checked, of bending eagerly forward.
'In America?' she asked, incredulously.
'At Boston. He met him in the street -- or thinks he did. There's a doubt. When Malkin spoke to the man, he declared that he was not Peak at all -- said there was a mistake.'
Marcella moved so as to show her face; endeavouring to express an unemotional interest, she looked coldly scornful.
'That ridiculous man can't be depended upon,' she said.
There had been one meeting between Marcella and Mr Malkin, with the result that each thoroughly disliked the other -- an antipathy which could have been foreseen.
'Well, there's no saying,' replied Christian. 'But of one thing I feel pretty sure: we have seen the last of Peak. He'll never come back to us.'
'I can only say that I feel convinced he has broken finally with all his old friends. -- We must think no more of him, Marcella.'
His sister rose slowly, affected to glance at a book, and in a few moments said good-night. For another hour Christian sat by himself in gloomy thought.
At breakfast next morning Marcella announced that she would be from home the whole day; she might return in time for dinner, but it was uncertain. Her brother asked no questions, but said that he would lunch in town. About ten o'clock a cab was summoned, and Marcella, without leave-taking, drove away.
Christian lingered as long as possible over the morning paper, unable to determine how he should waste the weary hours that lay before him. There was no reason for his remaining in London through this brief season of summer glow. Means and leisure were his, he could go whither he would. But the effort of decision and departure seemed too much for him. Worst of all, this lassitude (not for the first time) was affecting his imagination; he thought with a dull discontent of the ideal love to which he had bound himself. Could he but escape from it, and begin a new life! But he was the slave of his airy obligation; for very shame's sake his ten years' consistency must be that of a lifetime.
There was but one place away from London to which he felt himself drawn, and that was the one place he might not visit. This morning's sunshine carried him back to that day when he had lain in the meadow near Twybridge and talked with Godwin Peak. How distinctly he remembered his mood! 'Be practical -- don't be led astray after ideals -- concentrate yourself;' -- yes, it was he who had given that advice to Peak: and had he but recked his own rede --! Poor little Janet! was she married? If so, her husband must be a happy man.
Why should he not go down to Twybridge? His uncle, undoubtedly still living, must by this time have forgotten the old resentment, perhaps would be glad to see him. In any case he might stroll about the town and somehow obtain news of the Moxey family.
With vague half-purpose he left the house and walked westward. The stream of traffic in Edgware Road brought him to a pause; he stood for five minutes in miserable indecision, all but resolving to go on as far as Euston and look for the next northward train. But the vice in his will prevailed; automaton-like he turned in another direction, and presently came out into Sussex Square. Here was the house to which his thoughts had perpetually gone forth ever since that day when Constance gave her hand to a thriving City man, and became Mrs Palmer. At present, he knew, it was inhabited only by domestics: Mr Palmer, recovering from illness that threatened to be fatal, had gone to Bournemouth, where Constance of course tended him. But he would walk past and look up at the windows.
All the blinds were down -- naturally. Thrice he went by and retraced his steps. Then, still automaton-like, he approached the door, rang the bell. The appearance of the servant choked his voice for an instant, but he succeeded in shaping an inquiry after Mr Palmer's health.
'I'm sorry to say, sir,' was the reply, 'that Mr Palmer died last night. We received the news only an hour or two ago.'
Christian tottered on his feet and turned so pale that the servant regarded him with anxiety. For a minute or two he stared vacantly into the gloomy hall; then, without a word, he turned abruptly and walked away.
Unconscious of the intervening distance, he found himself at home, in his library. The parlour-maid was asking him whether he would have luncheon. Scarcely understanding the question, he muttered a refusal and sat down.
So, it had come at last. Constance was a widow. In a year or so she might think of marrying again.
He remained in the library for three or four hours. At first incapable of rejoicing, then ashamed to do so, he at length suffered from such a throbbing of the heart that apprehension of illness recalled him to a normal state of mind. The favourite decanter was within reach, and it gave him the wonted support. Then at length did heart and brain glow with exulting fervour.
Poor Constance! Noble woman! Most patient of martyrs! The hour of her redemption had struck. The fetters had fallen from her tender, suffering body. Of him she could not yet think. He did not wish it. The womanhood must pay its debt to nature before she could gladden in the prospect of a new life. Months must go by before he could approach her, or even remind her of his existence. But at last his reward was sure.
And he had thought of Twybridge, of his cousin Janet! O unworthy lapse!
He shed tears of tenderness. Dear, noble Constance! It was now nearly twelve years since he first looked upon her face. In those days he mingled freely with all the society within his reach. It was not very select, and Constance Markham shone to him like a divinity among creatures of indifferent clay. They said she was coquettish, that she played at the game of love with every presentable young man -- envious calumny! No, she was single-hearted, inexperienced, a lovely and joyous girl of not yet twenty. It is so difficult for such a girl to understand her own emotions. Her parents persuaded her into wedding Palmer. That was all gone into the past, and now his concern -- their concern -- was only with the blessed future.
At three o'clock he began to feel a healthy appetite. He sent for a cab and drove towards the region of restaurants.
Had he yielded to the impulse which this morning directed him to Twybridge, he would have arrived in that town not very long after his sister.
For that was the aim of Marcella's journey. On reaching the station, she dropped a light veil over her face and set forth on foot to discover the abode of Mrs Peak. No inhabitant of Twybridge save her uncle and his daughters could possibly recognise her, but she shrank from walking through the streets with exposed countenance. Whether she would succeed in her quest was uncertain. Godwin Peak's mother still dwelt here, she knew, for less than a year ago she had asked the question of Godwin himself; but a woman in humble circumstances might not have a house of her own, and her name was probably unknown save to a few friends.
However, the first natural step was to inquire for a directory. A stationer supplied her with one, informing her, with pride, that he himself was the author of it -- that this was only the second year of its issue, and that its success was 'very encouraging'. Retiring to a quiet street, Marcella examined her purchase, and came upon 'Peak, Oliver; seedsman' -- the sole entry of the name. This was probably a relative of Godwin's. Without difficulty she found Mr Peak's shop; behind the counter stood Oliver himself, rubbing his hands. Was there indeed a family likeness between this fresh-looking young shopkeeper and the stern, ambitious, intellectual man whose lineaments were ever before her mind? Though with fear and repulsion, Marcella was constrained to recognise something in the commonplace visage. With an uncertain voice, she made known her business.
'I wish to find Mrs Peak -- a widow -- an elderly lady' ----
'Oh yes, madam! My mother, no doubt. She lives with her sister, Miss Cadman -- the milliner's shop in the first street to the left. Let me point it out.'
With a sinking of the heart, Marcella murmured thanks and walked away. She found the milliner's shop -- and went past it.
Why should discoveries such as these be so distasteful to her? Her own origin was not so exalted that she must needs look down on trades-folk. Still, for the moment she all but abandoned her undertaking. Was Godwin Peak in truth of so much account to her? Would not the shock of meeting his mother be final? Having come thus far, she must go through with it. If the experience cured her of a hopeless passion, why, what more desirable?
She entered the shop. A young female assistant came forward with respectful smile, and waited her commands.
'I wish, if you please, to see Mrs Peak.'
'Oh yes, madam! Will you have the goodness to walk this way?'
Too late Marcella remembered that she ought to have gone to the house-entrance. The girl led her out of the shop into a dark passage, and thence into a sitting-room which smelt of lavender. Here she waited for a few moments; then the door opened softly, and Mrs Peak presented herself.
There was no shock. The widow had the air of a gentlewoman -- walked with elderly grace -- and spoke with propriety. She resembled Godwin, and this time it was not painful to remark the likeness.
'I have come to Twybridge,' began Marcella, gently and respectfully, 'that is to say, I have stopped in passing -- to ask for the address of Mr Godwin Peak. A letter has failed to reach him.
It was her wish to manage without either disclosing the truth about herself or elaborating fictions, but after the first words she felt it impossible not to offer some explanation. Mrs Peak showed a slight surprise. With the courage of cowardice, Marcella continued more rapidly:
'My name is Mrs Ward. My husband used to know Mr Peak, in London, a few years ago, but we have been abroad, and unfortunately have lost sight of him. We remembered that Mr Peak's relatives lived at Twybridge, and, as we wish very much to renew the old acquaintance, I took the opportunity -- passing by rail. I made inquiries in the town, and was directed to you -- I hope rightly' ----
The widow's face changed to satisfaction. Evidently her straightforward mind accepted the story as perfectly credible. Marcella, with bitterness, knew herself far from comely enough to suggest perils. She looked old enough for the part she was playing, and the glove upon her hand might conceal a wedding-ring.
'Yes, you were directed rightly,' Mrs Peak made quiet answer. 'I shall be very glad to give you my son's address. He left London about last Christmas, and went to live at Exeter.'
'Exeter? We thought he might be out of England.'
'No; he has lived all the time at Exeter. The address is Longbrook Street' -- she added the number. 'He is studying, and finds that part of the country pleasant. I am hoping to see him here before very long.'
Marcella did not extend the conversation. She spoke of having to catch a train, and veiled as well as she could beneath ordinary courtesies her perplexity at the information she had received.
When she again reached the house at Notting Hill, Christian was absent. He came home about nine in the evening. It was impossible not to remark his strange mood of repressed excitement; but Marcella did not question him, and Christian had resolved to conceal the day's event until he could speak of it without agitation. Before they parted for the night, Marcella said carelessly:
'I have decided to go down to Budleigh Salterton when the time comes.'
'That's right!' exclaimed her brother, with satisfaction. 'You couldn't do better -- couldn't possibly. It will be a very good thing for you in several ways.'
And each withdrew to brood over a perturbing secret.
Three or four years ago, when already he had conceived the idea of trying his fortune in some provincial town, Peak persuaded himself that it would not be difficult to make acquaintances among educated people, even though he had no credentials to offer. He indulged his fancy and pictured all manner of pleasant accidents which surely, sooner or later, must bring him into contact with families of the better sort. One does hear of such occurrences, no doubt. In every town there is some one or other whom a stranger may approach: a medical man -- a local antiquary -- a librarian -- a philanthropist; and with moderate advantages of mind and address, such casual connections may at times be the preface to intimacy, with all resulting benefits. But experience of Exeter had taught him how slight would have been his chance of getting on friendly terms with any mortal if he had depended solely on his personal qualities. After a nine months' residence, and with the friendship of such people as the Warricombes, he was daily oppressed by his isolation amid this community of English folk. He had done his utmost to adopt the tone of average polished life. He had sat at the tables of worthy men, and conversed freely with their sons and daughters; he exchanged greetings in the highways: but this availed him nothing. Now, as on the day of his arrival, he was an alien -- a lodger. What else had he ever been, since boyhood? A lodger in Kingsmill, a lodger in London, a lodger in Exeter. Nay, even as a boy he could scarcely have been said to 'live at home', for from the dawn of conscious intelligence he felt himself out of place among familiar things and people, at issue with prevalent opinions. Was he never to win a right of citizenship, never to have a recognised place among men associated in the duties and pleasures of life?
Sunday was always a day of weariness and despondency, and at present he suffered from the excitement of his conversation with Sidwell, followed as it had been by a night of fever. Extravagant hope had given place to a depression which could see nothing beyond the immediate gloom. Until mid-day he lay in bed. After dinner, finding the solitude of his little room intolerable, he went out to walk in the streets.
Not far from his door some children had gathered in a quiet corner, and were playing at a game on the pavement with pieces of chalk. As he drew near, a policeman, observing the little group, called out to them in a stern voice:
'Now then! what are you doing there? Don't you know what day it is?'
The youngsters fled, conscious of shameful delinquency.
There it was! There spoke the civic voice, the social rule, the public sentiment! Godwin felt that the policeman had rebuked him, and in doing so had severely indicated the cause of that isolation which he was condemned to suffer. Yes, all his life he had desired to play games on Sunday; he had never been able to understand why games on Sunday should be forbidden. And the angry laugh which escaped him as he went by the guardian of public morals, declared the impossibility of his ever being at one with communities which made this point the prime test of worthiness.
He walked on at a great speed, chafing, talking to himself. His way took him through Heavitree (when Hooker saw the light here, how easy to believe that the Anglican Church was the noblest outcome of human progress!) and on and on, until by a lane with red banks of sandstone, thick with ferns, shadowed with noble boughs, he came to a hamlet which had always been one of his favourite resorts, so peacefully it lay amid the exquisite rural landscape. The cottages were all closed and silent; hark for the reason! From the old church sounded an organ prelude, then the voice of the congregation, joining in one of the familiar hymns.
A significant feature of Godwin's idiosyncrasy. Notwithstanding his profound hatred and contempt of multitudes, he could never hear the union of many voices in song but his breast heaved and a choking warmth rose in his throat. Even where prejudice wrought most strongly with him, it had to give way before this rush of emotion; he often hurried out of earshot when a group of Salvationists were singing, lest the involuntary sympathy of his senses should agitate and enrage him. At present he had no wish to draw away. He entered the churchyard, and found the leafy nook with a tombstone where he had often rested. And as he listened to the rude chanting of verse after verse, tears fell upon his cheeks.
This sensibility was quite distinct from religious feeling. If the note of devotion sounding in that simple strain had any effect upon him at all, it merely intensified his consciousness of pathos as he thought of the many generations that had worshipped here, living and dying in a faith which was at best a helpful delusion. He could appreciate the beautiful aspects of Christianity as a legend, its nobility as a humanising power, its rich results in literature, its grandeur in historic retrospect. But at no moment in his life had he felt it as a spiritual influence. So far from tending in that direction, as he sat and brooded here in the churchyard, he owed to his fit of tearfulness a courage which determined him to abandon all religious pretences, and henceforth trust only to what was sincere in him -- his human passion. The future he had sketched to Sidwell was impossible; the rural pastorate, the life of moral endeavour which in his excitement had seemed so nearly a genuine aspiration that it might perchance become reality -- dreams, dreams! He must woo as a man, and trust to fortune for his escape from a false position. Sidwell should hear nothing more of clerical projects. He was by this time convinced that she held far less tenaciously than he had supposed to the special doctrines of the Church; and, if he had not deceived himself in interpreting her behaviour, a mutual avowal of love would involve ready consent on her part to his abandoning a career which -- as he would represent it -- had been adopted under a mistaken impulse. He returned to the point which he had reached when he set forth with the intention of bidding good-bye to the Warricombes -- except that in flinging away hypocrisy he no longer needed to trample his desires. The change need not be declared till after a lapse of time. For the present his task was to obtain one more private interview with Sidwell ere she went to London, or, if that could not be, somehow to address her in unmistakable language.
The fumes were dispelled from his brain, and as he walked homeward he plotted and planned with hopeful energy. Sylvia Moorhouse came into his mind; could he not in some way make use of her? He had never yet been to see her at Budleigh Salterton. That he would do forthwith, and perchance the visit might supply him with suggestions.
On the morrow he set forth, going by train to Exmouth, and thence by the coach which runs twice a day to the little seaside town. The delightful drive, up hill and down dale, with its magnificent views over the estuary, and its ever-changing wayside beauties, put him into the best of spirits. About noon, he alighted at the Rolle Arms, the hotel to which the coach conducts its passengers, and entered to take a meal. He would call upon the Moorhouses at the conventional hour. The intervening time was spent pleasantly enough in loitering about the pebbled beach. A south-west breeze which had begun to gather clouds drove on the rising tide. By four o'clock there was an end of sunshine, and spurts of rain mingled with flying foam. Peak turned inland, pursued the leafy street up the close-sheltered valley, and came to the house where his friends dwelt.
In crossing the garden he caught sight of a lady who sat in a room on the ground floor; her back was turned to the window, and before he could draw near enough to see her better she had moved away, but the glimpse he had obtained of her head and shoulders affected him with so distinct an alarm that his steps were checked. It seemed to him that he had recognised the figure, and if he were right. -- But the supposition was ridiculous; at all events so vastly improbable, that he would not entertain it. And now he descried another face, that of Miss Moorhouse herself, and it gave him a reassuring smile. He rang the door bell.
How happy -- he said to himself -- those men who go to call upon their friends without a tremor! Even if he had not received that shock a moment ago, he would still have needed to struggle against the treacherous beating of his heart as he waited for admission. It was always so when he visited the Warricombes, or any other family in Exeter. Not merely in consequence of the dishonest part he was playing, but because he had not quite overcome the nervousness which so anguished him in earlier days. The first moment after his entering a drawing-room cost him pangs of complex origin.
His eyes fell first of all upon Mrs Moorhouse, who advanced to welcome him. He was aware of three other persons in the room. The nearest, he could perceive without regarding her, was Sidwell's friend; the other two, on whom he did not yet venture to cast a glance, sat -- or rather had just risen -- in a dim background. As he shook hands with Sylvia, they drew nearer; one of them was a man, and, as his voice at once declared, no other than Buckland Warricombe. Peak returned his greeting, and, in the same moment, gazed at the last of the party. Mrs Moorhouse was speaking.
'Mr Peak -- Miss Moxey.'
A compression of the lips was the only sign of disturbance that anyone could have perceived on Godwin's countenance. Already he had strung himself against his wonted agitation, and the added trial did not sensibly enhance what he suffered. In discovering that he had rightly identified the figure at the window, he experienced no renewal of the dread which brought him to a stand-still. Already half prepared for this stroke of fate, he felt a satisfaction in being able to meet it so steadily. Tumult of thought was his only trouble; it seemed as if his brain must burst with the stress of its lightning operations. In three seconds, he re-lived the past, made several distinct anticipations of the future, and still discussed with himself how he should behave this moment. He noted that Marcella's face was bloodless; that her attempt to smile resulted in a very painful distortion of brow and lips. And he had leisure to pity her. This emotion prevailed. With a sense of magnanimity, which afterwards excited his wonder, he pressed the cold hand and said in a cheerful tone:
'Our introduction took place long ago, if I'm not mistaken. I had no idea, Miss Moxey, that you were among Mrs Moorhouse's friends.'
'Nor I that you were, Mr Peak,' came the answer, in a steadier voice than Godwin had expected.
Mrs Moorhouse and her daughter made the pleasant exclamations that were called for. Buckland Warricombe, with a doubtful smile on his lips, kept glancing from Miss Moxey to her acquaintance and back again. Peak at length faced him.
'I hoped we should meet down here this autumn.'
'I should have looked you up in a day or two,' Buckland replied, seating himself. 'Do you propose to stay in Exeter through the winter?'
'I'm not quite sure -- but I think it likely.'
Godwin turned to the neighbour of whose presence he was most conscious.
'I hope your brother is well, Miss Moxey?'
Their eyes encountered steadily.
'Yes, he is quite well, thank you. He often says that it seems very long since he heard from you.'
'I'm a bad correspondent. -- Is he also in Devonshire?'
'No. In London.'
'What a storm we are going to have!' exclaimed Sylvia, looking to the window. 'They predicted it yesterday. I should like to be on the top of Westdown Beacon -- wouldn't you, Miss Moxey?'
'I am quite willing to go with you.'
'And what pleasure do you look for up there?' asked Warricombe, in a blunt, matter-of-fact tone.
'Now, there's a question!' cried Sylvia, appealing to the rest of the company.
'I agree with Mr Warricombe,' remarked her mother. 'It's better to be in a comfortable room.'
'Oh, you Radicals! What a world you will make of it in time!'
Sylvia affected to turn away in disgust, and happening to glance through the window she saw two young ladies approaching from the road.
'The Walworths -- struggling desperately with their umbrellas.'
'I shouldn't wonder if you think it unworthy of an artist to carry an umbrella,' said Buckland.
'Now you suggest it, I certainly do. They should get nobly drenched.'
She went out into the hall, and soon returned with her friends -- Miss Walworth the artist, Miss Muriel Walworth, and a youth, their brother. In the course of conversation Peak learnt that Miss Moxey was the guest of this family, and that she had been at Budleigh Salterton with them only a day or two. For the time he listened and observed, endeavouring to postpone consideration of the dangers into which he had suddenly fallen. Marcella had made herself his accomplice, thus far, in disguising the real significance of their meeting, and whether she would betray him in her subsequent talk with the Moorhouses remained a matter of doubt. Of course he must have assurance of her disposition -- but the issues involved were too desperate for instant scrutiny. He felt the gambler's excitement, an irrational pleasure in the consciousness that his whole future was at stake. Buckland Warricombe had a keen eye upon him, and doubtless was eager to strike a train of suspicious circumstances. His face, at all events, should give no sign of discomposure. Indeed, he found so much enjoyment in the bright gossip of this assembly of ladies that the smile he wore was perfectly natural.
The Walworths, he gathered, were to return to London in a week's time. This meant, in all probability, that Marcella's stay here would not be prolonged beyond that date. Perhaps he could find an opportunity of seeing her apart from her friends. In reply to a question from Mrs Moorhouse, he made known that he proposed staying at the Rolle Arms for several days, and when he had spoken he glanced at Marcella. She understood him; he felt sure. An invitation to lunch here on the morrow was of course accepted.
Before leaving, he exchanged a few words with Buckland.
'Your relatives will be going to town very soon, I understand.
'Shall I see you at Exeter?' Godwin continued.
'I'm not sure. I shall go over to-morrow, but it's uncertain whether I shall still be there when you return.'
The Radical was distinctly less amicable than even on the last occasion of their meeting. They shook hands in rather a perfunctory way.
Early in the evening there was a temporary lull in the storm; rain no longer fell, and in spaces of the rushing sky a few stars showed themselves. Unable to rest at the hotel, Peak set out for a walk towards the cliff summit called Westdown Beacon; he could see little more than black vacancies, but a struggle with the wind suited his temper, and he enjoyed the incessant roar of surf in the darkness. After an hour of this buffeting he returned to the beach, and stood as close as possible to the fierce breakers. No person was in sight. But when he began to move towards the upper shore, three female figures detached themselves from the gloom and advanced in his direction. They came so near that their voices were audible, and thereupon he stepped up to them.
'Are you going to the Beacon after all, Miss Moorhouse?'
Sylvia was accompanied by Agatha Walworth and Miss Moxey. She explained laughingly that they had stolen out, by agreement, whilst the males of their respective households still lingered at the dinner-table.
'But Mr Warricombe was right after all. We shall be blown to pieces. A very little of the romantic goes a long way, nowadays.'
Godwin was determined to draw Marcella aside. Seemingly she met his wish, for as all turned to regain the shelter of houses she fell behind her female companions, and stood close by him.
'I want to see you before you go back to London,' he said, bending his head near to hers.
'I wrote a letter to you this morning,' was her reply.
'A letter? To what address?'
'Your address at Exeter.'
'But how did you know it?'
'I'll explain afterwards.'
'When can I see you?'
'Not here. It's impossible. I shall go to Exeter, and there write to you again.'
'Very well. You promise to do this?'
'Yes, I promise.'
There was danger even in the exchange of these hurried sentences. Miss Walworth had glanced back, and might possibly have caught a phrase that aroused curiosity. Having accompanied the girls to within view of their destination, Peak said good-night, and went home to spend the rest of the evening in thought which was sufficiently absorbing.
The next day he had no sight of Marcella. At luncheon the Moorhouses were alone. Afterwards Godwin accepted a proposal of the mathematician (who was generally invisible amid his formulæ) for a walk up the Otter valley. Naturally they talked of Coleridge, whose metaphysical side appealed to Moorhouse. Peak dwelt on the human and poetical, and was led by that peculiar recklessness of mood, which at times relieved his nervous tension, to defend opium eating, as a source of pleasurable experience.
'You will hardly venture on that paradox in the pulpit,' remarked his companion, with laughter.
'Perhaps not. But I have heard arguments from that place decidedly more immoral.'
Godwin corrected the impression he perhaps had made by turning with sudden seriousness to another subject. The ironic temptation was terribly strong in him just now. One is occasionally possessed by a desire to shout in the midst of a silent assembly; and impulse of the same kind kept urging him to utter words which would irretrievably ruin his prospects. The sense that life is an intolerable mummery can with difficulty be controlled by certain minds, even when circumstances offer no keen incitement to rebellion. But Peak's position to-day demanded an incessant effort to refrain from self-betrayal. What a joy to declare himself a hypocrite, and snap mocking fingers in the world's face! As a safeguard, he fixed his mind upon Sidwell, recalled her features and her voice as clearly as possible, stamped into his heart the conviction that she half loved him.
When he was alone again, he of a sudden determined to go to Exeter. He could no longer endure uncertainty as to the contents of Marcella's letter. As it was too late for the coach, he set off and walked five miles to Exmouth, where he caught a train.
The letter lay on his table, and with it one on which he recognised his mother's handwriting.
Marcella wrote in the simplest way, quite as if their intercourse had never been disturbed. As she happened to be staying with friends at Budleigh Salterton, it seemed possible for her to meet him. Might she hope that he would call at the hotel in Exeter, if she wrote again to make an appointment?
Well, that needed no reply. But how had she discovered the address? Was his story known in London? In a paroxysm of fury, he crushed the letter into a ball and flung it away. The veins of his forehead swelled; he walked about the room with senseless violence, striking his fist against furniture and walls. It would have relieved him to sob and cry like a thwarted child, but only a harsh sound, half-groan, half-laughter, burst from his throat.
The fit passed, and he was able to open the letter from Twybridge, the first he had received from his mother for more than a month. He expected to find nothing of interest, but his attention was soon caught by a passage, which ran thus:
'Have you heard from some friends of yours, called Ward? Some time ago a lady called here to ask for your address. She said her name was Mrs Ward, and that her husband, who had been abroad for a long time, very much wished to find you again. Of course I told her where you were to be found. It was just after I had written, or I should have let you know about it before.'
Ward? He knew no one of that name. Could it be Marcella who had done this? It looked more than likely; he believed her capable of strange proceedings.
In the morning he returned to the seaside. Prospect of pleasure there was none, but by moving about he made the time pass more quickly. Wandering in the lanes (which would have delighted him with their autumnal beauties had his mind been at rest), he came upon Miss Walworth, busy with a water-colour sketch. Though their acquaintance was so slight, he stopped for conversation, and the artist's manner appeared to testify that Marcella had as yet made no unfavourable report of him. By mentioning that he would return home on the morrow, he made sure that Marcella would be apprised of this. Perhaps she might shorten her stay, and his suspense.
Back in Longbrook Street once more, he found another letter. It was from Mrs Warricombe, who wrote to tell him of their coming removal to London, and added an invitation to dine four days hence. Then at all events he would speak again with Sidwell. But to what purpose? Could he let her go away for months, and perhaps all but forget him among the many new faces that would surround her. He saw no feasible way of being with her in private. To write was to run the gravest risk; things were not ripe for that. To take Martin into his confidence? That asked too much courage. Deliberate avowals of this kind seemed to him ludicrous and humiliating, and under the circumstances -- no, no; what force of sincerity could make him appear other than a scheming adventurer?
He lived in tumult of mind and senses. When at length, on the day before his engagement with the Warricombes, there came a note from Marcella, summoning him to the interview agreed upon, he could scarcely endure the hour or two until it was time to set forth; every minute cost him a throb of pain. The torment must have told upon his visage, for on entering the room where Marcella waited he saw that she looked at him with a changing expression, as if something surprised her.
They shook hands, but without a word. Marcella pointed to a chair, yet remained standing. She was endeavouring to smile; her eyes fell, and she coloured.
'Don't let us make each other uncomfortable,' Peak exclaimed suddenly, in the off-hand tone of friendly intimacy. 'There's nothing tragic in this affair, after all. Let us talk quietly.'
Marcella seated herself.
'I had reasons,' he went on, 'for going away from my old acquaintances for a time. Why not, if I chose? You have found me out. Very well; let us talk it over as we have discussed many another moral or psychological question.'
He did not meditate these sentences. Something must of necessity be said, and words shaped themselves for him. His impulse was to avoid the emotional, to talk with this problematic woman as with an intellectual friend of his own sex.
'Forgive me,' were the first sounds that came from Marcella's lips. She spoke with bent head, and almost in a whisper.
'What have I to forgive?' He sat down and leaned sideways in the easy chair. 'You were curious about my doings? What more natural?'
'Do you know how I learnt where you were?'
She looked up for an instant.
'I have a suspicion. You went to Twybridge?'
'But not in your own name?'
'I can hardly tell why not.'
Peak laughed. He was physically and mentally at rest in comparison with his state for the past few days. Things had a simpler aspect all at once. After all, who would wish to interfere maliciously with him? Women like to be in secrets, and probably Marcella would preserve his.
'What conjectures had you made about me?' he asked, with an air of amusement.
'Many, of course. But I heard something not long ago which seemed so unlikely, yet was told so confidently, that at last I couldn't overcome my wish to make inquiries.'
'And what was that?'
'Mr Malkin has been to America, and he declared that he had met you in the streets of Boston -- and that you refused to admit you were yourself.'
Peak laughed still more buoyantly. His mood was eager to seize on any point that afforded subject for jest.
'Malkin seems to have come across my Doppelgänger. One mustn't pretend to certainty in anything, but I am disposed to think I never was in Boston.'
'He was of course mistaken.'
Marcella's voice had an indistinctness very unlike her ordinary tone. As a rule she spoke with that clearness and decision which corresponds to qualities of mind not commonly found in women. But confidence seemed to have utterly deserted her; she had lost her individuality, and was weakly feminine.
'I have been here since last Christmas,' said Godwin, after a pause.
'Yes. I know.'
Their eyes met.
'No doubt your friends have told you as much as they know of me?'
'Yes -- they have spoken of you.'
'And what does it amount to?'
He regarded her steadily, with a smile of indifference.
'They say' -- she gazed at him as if constrained to do so -- 'that you are going into the Church.' And as soon as she uttered the last word, a painful laugh escaped her.
'Nothing else? No comments?'
'I think Miss Moorhouse finds it difficult to understand.'
'Miss Moorhouse?' He reflected, still smiling. 'I shouldn't wonder. She has a sceptical mind, and she doesn't know me well enough to understand me.'
'Doesn't know you well enough?'
She repeated the words mechanically. Peak gave her a keen glance.
'Has she led you to suppose,' he asked, 'that we are on intimate terms?'
'No.' The word fell from her, absently, despondently.
'Miss Moxey, would anything be gained by our discussing my position? If you think it a mystery, hadn't we better leave it so?'
She made no answer.
'But perhaps,' he went on, 'you have told them -- the Walworths and the Moorhouses -- that I owe my friends an explanation? When I see them again, perhaps I shall be confronted with cold, questioning faces?'
'I haven't said a word that could injure you,' Marcella replied, with something of her usual self-possession, passing her eyes distantly over his face as she spoke.
'I knew the suggestion was unjust, when I made it.'
'Then why should you refuse me your confidence?'
She bent forward slightly, but with her eyes cast down. Tone and features intimated a sense of shame, due partly to the feeling that she offered complicity in deceit.
'What can I tell you more than you know?' said Godwin, coldly. 'I propose to become a clergyman, and I have acknowledged to you that my motive is ambition. As the matter concerns my conscience, that must rest with myself; I have spoken of it to no one. But you may depend upon it that I am prepared for every difficulty that may spring up. I knew, of course, that sooner or later some one would discover me here. Well, I have changed my opinions, that's all; who can demand more than that?'
Marcella answered in a tone of forced composure.
'You owe me no explanation at all. Yet we have known each other for a long time, and it pains me that -- to be suddenly told that we are no more to each other than strangers.'
'Are we talking like strangers, Marcella?'
She flushed, and her eyes gleamed as they fixed themselves upon him for an instant. He had never before dreamt of addressing her so familiarly, and least of all in this moment was she prepared for it. Godwin despised himself for the impulse to which he had yielded, but its policy was justified. He had taken one more step in disingenuousness -- a small matter.
'Let it be one of those things on which even friends don't open their minds to each other,' he pursued. 'lam living in solitude, and perhaps must do so for several years yet. If I succeed in my purposes, you will see me again on the old terms; if I fail, then too we shall be friends -- if you are willing.'
'You won't tell me what those purposes are?'
'Surely you can imagine them.'
'Will you let me ask you -- do you look for help to anyone that I have seen here?' She spoke with effort and with shame.
'To no one that you have met,' he answered, shortly.
'Then to some one in Exeter? I have been told that you have friends.'
He was irritated by her persistency, and his own inability to decide upon the most prudent way of answering.
'You mean the Warricombe family, I suppose?'
'I think it very likely that Mr Warricombe may be able to help me substantially.'
Marcella kept silence. Then, without raising her eyes, she murmured:
'You will tell me no more?'
'There is nothing more to tell.'
She bit her lips, as if to compel them to muteness. Her breath came quickly; she glanced this way and that, like one who sought an escape. After eyeing her askance for a moment, Peak rose.
'You are going?' she said.
'Yes; but surely there is no reason why we shouldn't say good-bye in a natural and friendly way?'
'Can you forgive me for that deceit I practised?'
'What does it matter? We should in any case have met at Budleigh Salterton.'
'No. I had no serious thought of accepting their invitation.'
She stood looking away from him, endeavouring to speak as though the denial had but slight significance. Godwin stirred impatiently.
'I should never have gone to Twybridge,' Marcella continued, 'but for Mr Malkin's story.'
He turned to her.
'You mean that his story had a disagreeable sound?'
Marcella kept silence, her fingers working together.
'And is your mind relieved?' he added.
'I wish you were back in London. I wish this change had never come to pass.'
'I wish that several things in my life had never come to pass. But I am here, and my resolve is unalterable. One thing I must ask you -- how shall you represent my position to your brother?'
For a moment Marcella hesitated. Then, meeting his look, she answered with nervous haste:
'I shall not mention you to him.'
Ashamed to give any sign of satisfaction, and oppressed by the feeling that he owed her gratitude, Peak stood gazing towards the windows with an air of half-indifferent abstractedness. It was better to let the interview end thus, without comment or further question; so he turned abruptly, and offered his hand.
'Good-bye. You will hear of me, or from me.'
He tried to smile; but Marcella had a cold face, expressive of more dignity than she had hitherto shown. As he closed the door she was still looking towards him.
He knew what the look meant. In his position, a man of ordinary fibre would long ago have nursed the flattering conviction that Marcella loved him. Godwin had suspected it, but in a vague, unemotional way, never attaching importance to the matter. What he had clearly understood was, that Christian wished to inspire him with interest in Marcella, and on that account, when in her company, he sometimes set himself to display a deliberate negligence. No difficult undertaking, for he was distinctly repelled by the thought of any relations with her more intimate than had been brought about by his cold intellectual sympathy. Her person was still as disagreeable to him as when he first met her in her uncle's house at Twybridge. If a man sincerely hopes that a woman does not love him (which can seldom be the case where a suggestion of such feeling ever arises), he will find it easy to believe that she does not. Peak not only had the benefit of this principle; the constitution of his mind made it the opposite of natural for him to credit himself with having inspired affection. That his male friends held him in any warm esteem always appeared to him improbable, and as regards women his modesty was profound. The simplest explanation, that he was himself incapable of pure devotedness, perhaps hits the truth. Unsympathetic, however, he could with no justice be called, and now that the reality of Marcella's love was forced upon his consciousness he thought of her with sincere pity, -- the emotion which had already possessed him (though he did not then analyse it) when he unsuspectingly looked into her troubled face a few days ago.
It was so hard to believe, that, on reaching home, he sat for a long time occupied with the thought of it, to the exclusion of his own anxieties. What! this woman had made of him an ideal such as he himself sought among the most exquisite of her sex? How was that possible? What quality of his, personal, psychical, had such magnetic force? What sort of being was he in Marcella's eyes? Reflective men must often enough marvel at the success of whiskered and trousered mortals in wooing the women of their desire, for only by a specific imagination can a person of one sex assume the emotions of the other. Godwin had neither that endowment nor the peculiar self-esteem which makes love- winning a matter of course to some intelligent males. His native arrogance signified a low estimate of mankind at large, rather than an overweening appreciation of his own qualities, and in his most presumptuous moments he had never claimed the sexual refulgence which many a commonplace fellow so gloriously exhibits. At most, he had hoped that some woman might find him interesting, and so be led on to like him well enough for the venture of matrimony. Passion at length constrained him to believe that his ardour might be genuinely reciprocated, but even now it was only in paroxysms that he held this assurance; the hours of ordinary life still exposed him to the familiar self-criticism, sometimes more scathing than ever. He dreaded the looking-glass, consciously avoided it; and a like disparagement of his inner being tortured him through the endless labyrinths of erotic reverie.
Yet here was a woman who so loved him that not even a proud temper and his candid indifference could impose restraint upon her emotions. As he listened to the most significant of her words he was distressed with shame, and now, in recalling them, he felt that he should have said something, done something, to disillusion her. Could he not easily show himself in a contemptible light? But reflection taught him that the shame he had experienced on Marcella's behalf was blended with a gratification which forbade him at the moment to be altogether unamiable. It was not self-interest alone that prompted his use of her familiar name. In the secret places of his heart he was thankful to her for a most effective encouragement. She had confirmed him in the hope that he was loved by Sidwell.
And now that he no longer feared her, Marcella was gradually dismissed from mind. For a day or two he avoided the main streets of the town, lest a chance meeting with her should revive disquietude; but, by the time that Mrs Warricombe's invitation permitted him once more to follow his desire, he felt assured that Marcella was back in London, and the sense of distance helped to banish her among unrealities.
The hours had never pressed upon him with such demand for resolution. In the look with which Sidwell greeted him when he met her in the drawing-room, he seemed to read much more than wonted friendliness; it was as though a half secret already existed between them. But no occasion offered for a word other than trivial. The dinner-party consisted of about a score of people, and throughout the evening Peak found himself hopelessly severed from the one person whose presence was anything but an importunity to him. He maddened with jealousy, with fear, with ceaseless mental manoeuvring. More than one young man of agreeable aspect appeared to be on dangerous terms with Sidwell, approaching her with that air of easy, well-bred intimacy which Godwin knew too well he would never be able to assume in perfection. Again he was humiliated by self-comparison with social superiors, and again reminded that in this circle he had a place merely on sufferance. Mrs Warricombe, when he chanced to speak with her, betrayed the slight regard in which she really held him, and Martin devoted himself to more important people. The evening was worse than lost.
Yet in two more days Sidwell would be beyond reach. He writhed upon his bed as the image of her loveliness returned again and again, -- her face as she conversed at table, her dignity as she rose with the other ladies, her smile when he said good-night. A smile that meant more than civility; he was convinced of it. But memory would not support him through half-a-year of solitude and ill-divining passion.
He would write to her, and risk all. Two o'clock in the morning saw him sitting half-dressed at the table, raging over the difficulties of a composition which should express his highest self. Four o'clock saw the blotched letter torn into fragments. He could not write as he wished, could not hit the tone of manly appeal. At five o'clock he turned wretchedly into bed again.
A day of racking headache; then the long restful sleep which brings good counsel. It was well that he had not sent a letter, nor in any other way committed himself. If Sidwell were ever to be his wife, the end could only be won by heroic caution and patience. Thus far he had achieved notable results; to rush upon his aim would be the most absurd departure from a hopeful scheme gravely devised and pursued. To wait, to establish himself in the confidence of this family, to make sure his progress step by step, that was the course indicated from the first by his calm reason. Other men might triumph by sudden audacity; for him was no hope save in slow, persevering energy of will. Passion had all but ruined him; now he had recovered self-control.
Sidwell's six months in London might banish him from her mind, might substitute some rival against whom it would be hopeless to contend. Yes; but a thousand possibilities stood with menace in the front of every great enterprise. Before next spring he might be dead.
Defiance, then, of every foreboding, of every shame; and a life that moulded itself in the ardour of unchangeable resolve.
Martin Warricombe was reconciled to the prospect of a metropolitan winter by the fact that his old friend Thomas Gale, formerly Geological Professor at Whitelaw College, had of late returned from a three years' sojourn in North America, and now dwelt in London. The breezy man of science was welcomed back among his brethren with two-fold felicitation; his book on the Appalachians would have given no insufficient proof of activity abroad, but evidence more generally interesting accompanied him in the shape of a young and beautiful wife. Not every geologist whose years have entered the fifties can go forth and capture in second marriage a charming New England girl, thirty years his junior. Yet those who knew Mr Gale -- his splendid physique, his bluff cordiality, the vigour of his various talk -- were scarcely surprised. The young lady was no heiress; she had, in fact, been a school teacher, and might have wearied through her best years in that uncongenial pursuit. Transplanted to the richest English soil, she developed remarkable aptitudes. A month or two of London exhibited her as a type of all that is most attractive in American womanhood.
Between Mrs Gale and the Warricombes intimacy was soon established. Sidwell saw much of her, and liked her. To this meditative English girl the young American offered an engrossing problem, for she avowed her indifference to all religious dogmas, yet was singularly tolerant and displayed a moral fervour which Sidwell had believed inseparable from Christian faith. At the Gales' house assembled a great variety of intellectual people, and with her father's express approval (Martin had his reasons) Sidwell made the most of this opportunity of studying the modern world. Only a few days after her arrival in London, she became acquainted with a Mr Walsh, a brother of that heresiarch, the Whitelaw Professor, whose name was still obnoxious to her mother. He was a well-favoured man of something between thirty and forty, brilliant in conversation, personally engaging, and known by his literary productions, which found small favour with conservative readers. With surprise, Sidwell in a short time became aware that Mr Walsh had a frank liking for her society. He was often to be seen in Mrs Warricombe's drawing-room, and at Mrs Gale's he yet more frequently obtained occasions of talking with her. The candour with which he expressed himself on most subjects enabled her to observe a type of mind which at present had peculiar interest for her. Discretion often put restraint upon her curiosity, but none the less Mr Walsh had plausible grounds for believing that his advances were not unwelcome. He saw that Sidwell's gaze occasionally rested upon him with a pleasant gravity, and noted the mood of meditation which sometimes came upon her when he had drawn apart. The frequency of these dialogues was observed by Mrs Warricombe, and one evening she broached the subject to her daughter rather abruptly.
'I am surprised that you have taken such a liking to Mr Walsh.'
Sidwell coloured, and made answer in the quiet tone which her mother had come to understand as a reproof, a hint of defective delicacy:
'I don't think I have behaved in a way that should cause you surprise.'
'It seemed to me that you were really very -- friendly with him.'
'Yes, I am always friendly. But nothing more.'
'Don't you think there's a danger of his misunderstanding you, Sidwell?'
'I don't, mother. Mr Walsh understands that we differ irreconcilably on subjects of the first importance. I have never allowed him to lose sight of that.'
Intellectual differences were of much less account to Mrs Warricombe than to her daughter, and her judgment in a matter such as this was consequently far more practical.
'If I may advise you, dear, you oughtn't to depend much on that. I am not the only one who has noticed something -- I only mention it, you know.'
Sidwell mused gravely. In a minute or two she looked up and said in her gentlest voice:
'Thank you, mother. I will be more careful.'
Perhaps she had lost sight of prudence, forgetting that Mr Walsh could not divine her thoughts. Her interest in him was impersonal; when he spoke she was profoundly attentive, only because her mind would have been affected in the same way had she been reading his words instead of listening to them. She could not let him know that another face was often more distinct to her imagination than his to her actual sight, and that her thoughts were frequently more busy with a remembered dialogue than with this in which she was engaged. She had abundantly safe-guarded herself against serious misconstruction, but if gossip were making her its subject, it would be inconsiderate not to regard the warning.
It came, indeed, at a moment when she was very willing to rest from social activity. At the time of her last stay in London, three years ago, she had not been ripe for reflection on what she saw. Now her mind was kept so incessantly at strain, and her emotions answered so intensely to every appeal, that at length she felt the need of repose. It was not with her as with the young women who seek only to make the most of their time in agreeable ways. Sidwell's vital forces were concentrated in an effort of profound spiritual significance. The critical hour of her life was at hand, and she exerted every faculty in the endeavour to direct herself aright.
Having heard from his brother that Sidwell had not been out for several days, Buckland took an opportunity of calling at the house early one morning. He found her alone in a small drawing-room, and sat down with an expression of weary discontent. This mood had been frequent in the young man of late. Sidwell remarked a change that was coming over him, a gloominess unnatural to his character.
'Seen the Walworths lately?' he asked, when his sister had assured him that she was not seriously ailing.
'We called a few days ago.'
'Meet anyone there?'
'Two or three people. No one that interested me.'
'You haven't come across some friends of theirs called Moxey?'
'Oh yes! Miss Moxey was there one afternoon about a fortnight ago.'
'Did you talk to her at all?' Buckland asked.
'Yes; we hadn't much to say to each other, though. How do you know of her? Through Sylvia, I daresay.'
'Met her when I was last down yonder.'
Sidwell had long since heard from her friend of Miss Moxey's visit to Budleigh Salterton, but she was not aware that Buckland had been there at the same time. Sylvia had told her, however, of the acquaintance existing between Miss Moxey and Peak, a point of much interest to her, though it remained a mere unconnected fact. In her short conversation with Marcella, she had not ventured to refer to it.
'Do you know anything of the family?'
'I was going to ask you the same,' returned Buckland. 'I thought you might have heard something from the Walworths.'
Sidwell had in fact sought information, but, as her relations with the Walworths were formal, such inquiry as she could make from them elicited nothing more than she already knew from Sylvia.
'Are you anxious to discover who they are?' she asked.
Buckland moved uneasily, and became silent.
'Oh, not particularly.'
'I dined with Walsh yesterday,' he said, at length, struggling to shake off the obvious dreariness that oppressed him. 'He suits me; we can get on together.'
'But you don't dislike him, I think?'
'Implying that I dislike you,' said Sidwell, lightsomely.
'You have no affection for my opinions. -- Walsh is an honest man.'
'I hope so.'
'He says what he thinks. No compromise with fashionable hypocrisy.'
'I despise that kind of thing quite as much as you do.'
They looked at each other. Buckland had a sullen air.
'Yes, in your own way,' he replied, 'you are sincere enough, I have no doubt. I wish all women were so.
'What exception have you in mind?'
He did not seem inclined to answer.
'Perhaps it is your understanding of them that's at fault,' added Sidwell, gently.
'Not in one case, at all events,' he exclaimed. 'Supposes you were asked to define Miss Moorhouse's religious opinions, how would you do it?'
'I am not well enough acquainted with them.'
'Do you imagine for a moment that she has any more faith in the supernatural than I have?'
'I think there is a great difference between her position and yours.'
'Because she is hypocritical!' cried Buckland, angrily. 'She deceives you. She hasn't the courage to be honest.'
Sidwell wore a pained expression.
'You judge her,' she replied, 'far too coarsely. No one is called upon to make an elaborate declaration of faith as often as such subjects are spoken of. Sylvia thinks so differently from you about almost everything that, when she happens to agree with you, you are misled and misinterpret her whole position.'
'I understand her perfectly,' Buckland went on, in the same irritated voice. 'There are plenty of women like her -- with brains enough, but utter and contemptible cowards. Cowards even to themselves, perhaps. What can you expect, when society is based on rotten shams?'
For several minutes he pursued this vein of invective, then took an abrupt leave. Sidwell had a piece of grave counsel ready to offer him, but he was clearly in no mood to listen, so she postponed it.
A day or two after this, she received a letter from Sylvia. Miss Moorhouse was anything but a good correspondent; she often confessed her inability to compose anything but the briefest and driest statement of facts. With no little surprise, therefore, Sidwell found that the envelope contained two sheets all but covered with her friend's cramped handwriting. The letter began with apology for long delay in acknowledging two communications.
At this point Sylvia had carefully obliterated two lines, blackening the page into unsightliness. In vain Sidwell pored over the effaced passage, led to do so by a fancy that she could discern a capital P, which looked like the first letter of a name. The writer continued:
Here the letter was to have ended, for on the line beneath was legible 'Give my love to Fanny', but this again had been crossed out, and there followed a long paragraph:
And therewith the odd epistle was concluded. Sidwell perused the latter part several times. Of course she was at no loss to interpret it. Buckland's demeanour for the past two months had led her to surmise that his latest visit to Budleigh Salterton had finally extinguished the hopes which drew him in that direction. His recent censure of Sylvia might be thus explained. She grieved that her brother's suit should be discouraged, but could not persuade herself that Sylvia's decision was final. The idea of a match between those two was very pleasant to her. For Buckland she imagined it would be fraught with good results, and for Sylvia, on the whole, it might be the best thing.
Before she replied to her friend nearly a month passed, and Christmas was at hand. Again she had been much in society. Mr Walsh had renewed his unmistakable attentions, and, when her manner of meeting them began to trouble him with doubts, had cleared the air by making a formal offer of marriage. Sidwell's negative was absolute, much to her mother's relief. On the day of that event, she wrote rather a long letter to Sylvia, but Mr Walsh's name was not mentioned in it.
Reading this, Sylvia had the sense of listening to an echo. Some of the phrases recalled to her quite a different voice from Sidwell's. She smiled and mused.
On the morning appointed for her journey to Exeter Sidwell rose early, and in unusually good spirits. Mrs Warricombe was less animated by the prospect of five hours in a railway carriage, for London had a covering of black snow, and it seemed likely that more would fall. Martin suggested postponement, but circumstances made this undesirable.
'Let Fanny go with me,' proposed Sidwell, just after breakfast. 'I can see to everything perfectly well, mother.'
But Fanny hastened to decline. She was engaged for a dance on the morrow.
'Then I'll run down with you myself, Sidwell,' said her father.
Mrs Warricombe looked at the weather and hesitated. There were strong reasons why she should go, and they determined her to brave discomforts.
It chanced that the morning post had brought Mr Warricombe a letter from Godwin Peak. It was a reply to one that he had written with Christmas greetings; a kindness natural in him, for he had remembered that the young man was probably hard at work in his lonely lodgings. He spoke of it privately to his wife.
'A very good letter -- thoughtful and cheerful. You're not likely to see him, but if you happen to, say a pleasant word.'
'I shouldn't have written, if I were you,' remarked Mrs Warricombe.
'Why not? I was only thinking the other day that he contrasted very favourably with the younger generation as we observe it here. Yes, I have faith in Peak. There's the right stuff in him.'
'Oh, I daresay. But still' ----
And Mrs Warricombe went away with an air of misgiving.
In volunteering a promise not to inform her brother of Peak's singular position, Marcella spoke with sincerity. She was prompted by incongruous feelings -- a desire to compel Godwin's gratitude, and disdain of the circumstances in which she had discovered him. There seemed to be little likelihood of Christian's learning from any other person that she had met with Peak at Budleigh Salterton; he had, indeed, dined with her at the Walworths', and might improve his acquaintance with that family, but it was improbable that they would ever mention in his hearing the stranger who had casually been presented to them, or indeed ever again think of him. If she held her peace, the secret of Godwin's retirement must still remain impenetrable. He would pursue his ends as hitherto, thinking of her, if at all, as a weak woman who had immodestly betrayed a hopeless passion, and who could be trusted never to wish him harm.
That was Marcella's way of reading a man's thoughts. She did not attribute to Peak the penetration which would make him uneasy. In spite of masculine proverbs, it is the habit of women to suppose that the other sex regards them confidingly, ingenuously. Marcella was unusually endowed with analytic intelligence, but in this case she believed what she hoped. She knew that Peak's confidence in her must be coloured with contempt, but this mattered little so long as he paid her the compliment of feeling sure that she was superior to ignoble temptations. Many a woman would behave with treacherous malice. It was in her power to expose him, to confound all his schemes, for she knew the authorship of that remarkable paper in The Critical Review. Before receiving Peak's injunction of secrecy, Earwaker had talked of 'The New Sophistry' with Moxey and with Malkin; the request came too late. In her interview with Godwin at the Exeter hotel, she had not even hinted at this knowledge, partly because she was unconscious that Peak imagined the affair a secret between himself and Earwaker, partly because she thought it unworthy of her even to seem to threaten. It gratified her, however, to feel that he was at her mercy, and the thought preoccupied her for many days.
Passion which has the intellect on its side is more easily endured than that which offers sensual defiance to all reasoning, but on the other hand it lasts much longer. Marcella was not consumed by her emotions; she often thought calmly, coldly, of the man she loved. Yet he was seldom long out of her mind, and the instigation of circumstances at times made her suffering intense. Such an occasion was her first meeting with Sidwell Warricombe, which took place at the Walworths', in London. Down in Devonshire she had learnt that a family named Warricombe were Peak's intimate friends; nothing more than this, for indeed no one was in a position to tell her more. Wakeful jealousy caused her to fix upon the fact as one of significance; Godwin's evasive manner when she questioned him confirmed her suspicions; and as soon as she was brought face to face with Sidwell, suspicion became certainty. She knew at once that Miss Warricombe was the very person who would be supremely attractive to Godwin Peak.
An interval of weeks, and again she saw the face that in the meantime had been as present to her imagination as Godwin's own features. This time she conversed at some length with Miss Warricombe. Was it merely a fancy that the beautiful woman looked at her, spoke to her, with some exceptional interest? By now she had learnt that the Moorhouses and the Warricombes were connected in close friendship: it was all but certain, then, that Miss Moorhouse had told Miss Warricombe of Peak's visit to Budleigh Salterton, and its incidents. Could this in any way be explanatory of the steady, searching look in those soft eyes?
Marcella had always regarded the emotion of jealousy as characteristic of a vulgar nature. Now that it possessed her, she endeavoured to call it by other names; to persuade herself that she was indignant on abstract grounds, or anxious only with reference to Peak's true interests. She could not affect surprise. So intensely sympathetic was her reading of Godwin's character that she understood -- or at all events recognised -- the power Sidwell would possess over him. He did not care for enlightenment in a woman; he was sensual -- though in a subtle way; the aristocratic vein in his temper made him subject to strong impressions from trivialities of personal demeanour, of social tone.
Yet all was mere conjecture. She had not dared to utter Peak's name, lest in doing so she should betray herself. Constantly planning to make further discoveries, she as constantly tried to dismiss all thought of the matter -- to learn indifference. Already she had debased herself, and her nature must be contemptible indeed if anything could lure her forward on such a path.
None the less, she was assiduous in maintaining friendly relations with the Walworths. Christian, too, had got into the habit of calling there; it was significant of the noticeable change which was come upon him -- a change his sister was at no loss to understand from the moment that he informed her (gravely, but without expressiveness) of Mr Palmer's death. Instead of shunning ordinary society, he seemed bent on extending the circle of his acquaintance. He urged Marcella to invite friendly calls, to have guests at dinner. There seemed to be a general revival of his energies, exhibited in the sphere of study as well as of amusement. Not a day went by without his purchasing books or scientific apparatus, and the house was brightened with works of art chosen in the studios which Miss Walworth advised him to visit. All the amiabilities of his character came into free play; with Marcella he was mirthful, affectionate, even caressing. He grew scrupulous about his neckties, his gloves, and was careful to guard his fingers against corroding acids when he worked in the laboratory. Such indications of hopefulness caused Marcella more misgiving than pleasure; she made no remark, but waited with anxiety for some light on the course of events.
Just before dinner, one evening, as she sat alone in the drawing-room, Christian entered with a look which portended some strange announcement. He spoke abruptly:
'I have heard something astonishing.'
'What is that?'
'This afternoon I went to the matinée at the Vaudeville, and found myself among a lot of our friends -- the Walworths and the Hunters and the Mortons. Between the acts I was talking to Hunter, when a man came up to us, spoke to Hunter, and was introduced to me -- a Mr Warricombe. What do you think he said? "I believe you know my friend Peak, Mr Moxey?" "Peak? To be sure! Can you tell me what has become of him?" He gave me an odd look. "Why, I met him last, some two months ago, in Devonshire." At that moment we were obliged to go to our places, and I couldn't get hold of the fellow again. Hunter told me something about him; he knows the Walworths, it seems -- belongs to a good Devonshire family. What on earth can Peak be doing over there?'
Marcella kept silence. The event she had judged improbable had come to pass. The chance of its doing so had of course increased since Christian began to associate freely with the Walworths and their circle. Yet, considering the slightness of the connection between that group of people and the Warricombe family, there had seemed no great likelihood of Christian's getting acquainted with the latter. She debated rapidly in her troubled mind how to meet this disclosure. Curiosity would, of course, impel her brother to follow up the clue; he would again encounter Warricombe, and must then learn all the facts of Peak's position. To what purpose should she dissemble her own knowledge?
Did she desire that Godwin should remain in security? A tremor more akin to gladness than its opposite impeded her utterance. If Warricombe became aware of all that was involved in Godwin Peak's withdrawal from among his friends -- if (as must follow) he imparted the discovery to his sister ----
The necessity of speaking enabled her to ignore these turbulent speculations, which yet were anything but new to her.
'They met at Budleigh Salterton,' she said, quietly.
'Who did? Warricombe and Peak?'
'Yes. At the Moorhouses'. It was when I was there.'
Christian stared at her.
'When you were there? But -- you met Peak?'
His sister smiled, turning from the astonished gaze.
'Yes, I met him.'
'But, why the deuce ----? Why didn't you tell me, Marcella?'
'He asked me not to speak of it. He didn't wish you to know that -- that he has decided to become a clergyman.'
Christian was stricken dumb. In spite of his sister's obvious agitation, he could not believe what she told him; her smile gave him an excuse for supposing that she jested.
'Peak a clergyman?' He burst out laughing. 'What's the meaning of all this? -- Do speak intelligibly! What's the fellow up to?'
'I am quite serious. He is studying for Orders -- has been for this last year.'
In desperation, Christian turned to another phase of the subject.
'Then Malkin was mistaken?'
'And you mean to tell me that Peak ----? Give me more details. Where's he living? How has he got to know people like these Warricombes?'
Marcella told all that she knew, and without injunction of secrecy. The affair had passed out of her hands; destiny must fulfil itself. And again the tremor that resembled an uneasy joy went through her frame.
'But how,' asked Christian, 'did this fellow Warricombe come to know that I was a friend of Peak's?'
'That's a puzzle to me. I shouldn't have thought he would have remembered my name; and, even if he had, how could he conclude ----'
She broke off, pondering. Warricombe must have made inquiries, possibly suggested by suspicions.
'I scarcely spoke of Mr Peak to anyone,' she added. 'People saw, of course, that we were acquaintances, but it couldn't have seemed a thing of any importance.'
'You spoke with him in private, it seems?'
'Yes, I saw him for a few minutes -- in Exeter.'
'And you hadn't said anything to the Walworths that -- that would surprise them?'
'Purposely not. -- Why should I injure him?'
Christian knit his brows. He understood too well why his sister should refrain from such injury.
'You would have behaved in the same way,' Marcella added.
'Why really -- yes, perhaps so. Yet I don't know. -- In plain English, Peak is a wolf in sheep's clothing!'
'I don't know anything about that,' she replied, with gloomy evasion.
'Nonsense, my dear girl! -- Had he the impudence to pretend to you that he was sincere?'
'He made no declaration.'
'But you are convinced he is acting the hypocrite, Marcella. You spoke of the risk of injuring him. -- What are his motives? What does he aim at?'
'Scarcely a bishopric, I should think,' she replied, bitterly.
'Then, by Jove! Earwaker may be right!'
Marcella darted an inquiring look at him.
'What has he thought?'
'I'm ashamed to speak of it. He suggested once that Peak might disguise himself for the sake of -- of making a good marriage.'
The reply was a nervous laugh.
'Look here, Marcella.' He caught her hand. 'This is a very awkward business. Peak is disgracing himself; he will be unmasked; there'll be a scandal. It was kind of you to keep silence -- when don't you behave kindly, dear girl? -- but think of the possible results to us. We shall be something very like accomplices.'
'How?' Marcella exclaimed, impatiently. 'Who need know that we were so intimate with him?'
'Warricombe seems to know it.'
'Who can prove that he isn't sincere?'
'No one, perhaps. But it will seem a very odd thing that he hid away from all his old friends. You remember, I betrayed that to Warricombe, before I knew that it mattered.'
Yes, and Mr Warricombe could hardly forget the circumstance. He would press his investigation -- knowing already, perhaps, of Peak's approaches to his sister Sidwell.
'Marcella, a man plays games like that at his own peril. I don't like this kind of thing. Perhaps he has audacity enough to face out any disclosure. But it's out of the question for you and me to nurse his secret. We have no right to do so.'
'You propose to denounce him?'
Marcella gazed at her brother with an agitated look.
'Not denounce. I am fond of Peak; I wish him well. But I can't join him in a dishonourable plot. -- Then, we mustn't endanger our place in society.'
'I have no place in society,' Marcella answered, coldly.
'Don't say that, and don't think it. We are both going to make more of our lives; we are going to think very little of the past, and a great deal of the future. We are still young; we have happiness before us.'
'We?' she asked, with shaken voice.
'Yes -- both of us! Who can say' ----
Again he took her hand and pressed it warmly in both his own. Just then the door opened, and dinner was announced. Christian talked on, in low hurried tones, for several minutes, affectionately, encouragingly. After dinner, he wished to resume the subject, but Marcella declared that there was no more to be said; he must act as honour and discretion bade him; for herself, she should simply keep silence as hitherto. And she left him to his reflections.
Though with so little of ascertained fact to guide her, Marcella interpreted the hints afforded by her slight knowledge of the Warricombes with singular accuracy. Precisely as she had imagined, Buckland Warricombe was going about on Peak's track, learning all he could concerning the theological student, forming acquaintance with anyone likely to supplement his discoveries. And less than a fortnight after the meeting at the theatre, Christian made known to his sister that Warricombe and he had had a second conversation, this time uninterrupted.
'He inquired after you, Marcella, and -- really I had no choice but to ask him to call here. I hardly think he'll come. He's not the kind of man I care for -- though liberal enough, and all that.'
'Wasn't it rather rash to give that invitation?'
'The fact was, I so dreaded the appearance of -- of seeming to avoid him,' Christian pleaded, awkwardly. 'You know, that affair -- we won't talk any more of it; but, if there should be a row about it, you are sure to be compromised unless we have managed to guard ourselves. If Warricombe calls, we must talk about Peak without the least show of restraint. Let it appear that we thought his choice of a profession unlikely, but not impossible. Happily, we needn't know anything about that anonymous Critical article. -- Indeed, I think I have acted wisely.'
'Yes, I suppose you have.'
'And, by the way, I have spoken of it to Earwaker. Not of your part in the story, of course. I told him that I had met a man who knew all about Peak. -- Impossible, you see, for me to keep silence with so intimate a friend.'
'Then Mr Earwaker will write to him?' said Marcella, reflectively.
'I couldn't give him any address.'
'How does Mr Warricombe seem to regard Mr Peak?'
'With a good deal of interest, and of the friendliest kind. Naturally enough; they were College friends, as you know, before I had heard of Peak's existence.'
'He has no suspicions?'
Christian thought not, but her brother's judgment had not much weight with Marcella.
She at once dreaded and desired Warricombe's appearance. If he thought it worth while to cultivate her acquaintance, she would henceforth have the opportunity of studying Peak's relations with the Warricombes; on the other hand, this was to expose herself to suffering and temptation from which the better part of her nature shrank with disdain. That she might seem to have broken the promise voluntarily made to Godwin was a small matter; not so the risk of being overcome by an ignoble jealousy. She had no overweening confidence in the steadfastness of her self-respect, if circumstances were all on the side of sensual impulse. And the longer she brooded on this peril, the more it allured her. For therewith was connected the one satisfaction which still remained to her: however little he desired to keep her constantly in mind, Godwin Peak must of necessity do so after what had passed between them. Had but her discovery remained her own secret, then the pleasure of commanding her less pure emotions, of proving to Godwin that she was above the weakness of common women, might easily have prevailed. Now that her knowledge was shared by others, she had lost that safeguard against lower motive. The argument that to unmask hypocrisy was in itself laudable she dismissed with contempt; let that be the resource of a woman who would indulge her rancour whilst keeping up the inward pretence of sanctity. If she erred in the ways characteristic of her sex, it should at all events be a conscious degradation.
'Have you seen that odd creature Malkin lately?' she asked of Christian, a day or two after.
'No, I haven't; I thought of him to make up our dinner on Sunday; but you had rather not have him here, I daresay?'
'Oh, he is amusing. Ask him by all means,' said Marcella, carelessly.
'He may have heard about Peak from Earwaker, you know. If he begins to talk before people' ----
'Things have gone too far for such considerations,' replied his sister, with a petulance strange to her habits of speech.
'Well, yes,' admitted Christian, glancing at her. 'We can't be responsible.'
He reproached himself for this attitude towards Peak, but was heartily glad that Marcella seemed to have learnt to regard the intriguer with a wholesome indifference.
On the second day after Christmas, as they sat talking idly in the dusking twilight, the door of the drawing-room was thrown open, and a visitor announced. The name answered with such startling suddenness to the thought with which Marcella had been occupied that, for an instant, she could not believe that she had heard aright. Yet it was undoubtedly Mr Warricombe who presented himself. He came forward with a slightly hesitating air, but Christian made haste to smooth the situation. With the help of those commonplaces by which even intellectual people are at times compelled to prove their familiarity with social usages, conversation was set in movement.
Buckland could not be quite himself. The consciousness that he had sought these people not at all for their own sake made him formal and dry; his glances, his half-smile, indicated a doubt whether the Moxeys belonged entirely to the sphere in which he was at home. Hence a rather excessive politeness, such as the man who sets much store on breeding exhibits to those who may at any moment, even in a fraction of a syllable, prove themselves his inferiors. With men and women of the unmistakably lower orders, Buckland could converse in a genial tone that recommended him to their esteem; on the borderland of refinement, his sympathies were repressed, and he held the distinctive part of his mind in reserve.
Marcella desired to talk agreeably, but a weight lay upon her tongue; she was struck with the resemblance in Warricombe's features to those of his sister, and this held her in a troubled preoccupation, occasionally evident when she made a reply, or tried to diversify the talk by leading to a new topic. It was rather early in the afternoon, and she had slight hope that any other caller would appear; a female face would have been welcome to her, even that of foolish Mrs Morton, who might possibly look in before six o'clock. To her relief the door did presently open, but the sharp, creaking footstep which followed was no lady's; the servant announced Mr Malkin.
Marcella's eyes gleamed strangely. Not with the light of friendly welcome, though for that it could be mistaken. She rose quietly, and stepped forward with a movement which again seemed to betoken eagerness of greeting. In presenting the newcomer to Mr Warricombe, she spoke with an uncertain voice. Buckland was more than formal. The stranger's aspect impressed him far from favourably, and he resented as an impudence the hearty hand-grip to which he perforce submitted.
'I come to plead with you,' exclaimed Malkin, turning to Marcella, in his abrupt, excited way. 'After accepting your invitation to dine, I find that the thing is utterly and absolutely impossible. I had entirely forgotten an engagement of the very gravest nature. I am conscious of behaving in quite an unpardonable way.'
Marcella laughed down his excuses. She had suddenly become so mirthful that Christian looked at her in surprise, imagining that she was unable to restrain her sense of the ridiculous in Malkin's demeanour.
'I have hurried up from Wrotham,' pursued the apologist. 'Did I tell you, Moxey, that I had taken rooms down there, to be able to spend a day or two near my friends the Jacoxes occasionally? On the way here, I looked in at Staple Inn, but Earwaker is away somewhere. What an odd thing that people will go off without letting one know! It's such common ill-luck of mine to find people gone away -- I'm really astonished to find you at home, Miss Moxey.'
Marcella looked at Warricombe and laughed.
'You must understand that subjectively,' she said, with nervous gaiety which again excited her brother's surprise. 'Please don't be discouraged by it from coming to see us again; I am very rarely out in the afternoon.'
'But,' persisted Malkin, 'it's precisely my ill fortune to hit on those rare moments when people are out! -- Now, I never meet acquaintances in the streets of London; but, if I happen to be abroad, as likely as not I encounter the last person I should expect to find. Why, you remember, I rush over to America for scarcely a week's stay, and there I come across a man who has disappeared astonishingly from the ken of all his friends!'
Christian looked at Marcella. She was leaning forward, her lips slightly parted, her eyes wide as if in gaze at something that fascinated her. He saw that she spoke, but her voice was hardly to be recognised.
'Are you quite sure of that instance, Mr Malkin?'
'Yes, I feel quite sure, Miss Moxey. Undoubtedly it was Peak!'
Buckland Warricombe, who had been waiting for a chance of escape, suddenly wore a look of interest. He rapidly surveyed the trio. Christian, somewhat out of countenance, tried to answer Malkin in a tone of light banter.
'It happens, my dear fellow, that Peak has not left England since we lost sight of him.'
'What? He has been heard of? Where is he then?'
'Mr Warricombe can assure you that he has been living for a year at Exeter.'
Buckland, perceiving that he had at length come upon something important to his purposes, smiled genially.
'Yes, I have had the pleasure of seeing Peak down in Devon from time to time.'
'Then it was really an illusion!' cried Malkin. 'I was too hasty. Yet that isn't a charge that can be often brought against me, I think. Does Earwaker know of this?'
'He has lately heard,' replied Christian, who in vain sought for a means of checking Malkin's loquacity. 'I thought he might have told you.'
'Certainly not. The thing is quite new to me. And what is Peak doing down there, pray? Why did he conceal himself?'
Christian gazed appealingly at his sister. She returned the look steadily, but neither stirred nor spoke. It was Warricombe's voice that next sounded:
'Peak's behaviour seems mysterious,' he began, with ironic gravity. 'I don't pretend to understand him. What's your view of his character, Mr Malkin?'
'I know him very slightly indeed, Mr Warricombe. But I have a high opinion of his powers. I wonder he does so little. After that article of his in The Critical' ----
Malkin became aware of something like agonised entreaty on Christian's countenance, but this had merely the effect of heightening his curiosity.
'In The Critical?' said Warricombe, eagerly. 'I didn't know of that. What was the subject?'
'To be sure, it was anonymous,' went on Malkin, without a suspicion of the part he was playing before these three excited people. 'A paper called "The New Sophistry", a tremendous bit of satire.'
Marcella's eyes closed as if a light had flashed before them; she drew a short sigh, and at once seemed to become quite at ease, the smile with which she regarded Warricombe expressing a calm interest.
'That article was Peak's?' Buckland asked, in a very quiet voice.
Christian at last found his opportunity.
'He never mentioned it to you? Perhaps he thought he had gone rather too far in his Broad Churchism, and might be misunderstood.'
'Broad Churchism?' cried Malkin. 'Uncommonly broad, I must say!'
And he laughed heartily; Marcella seemed to join in his mirth.
'Then it would surprise you,' said Buckland, in the same quiet tone as before, 'to hear that Peak is about to take Orders?'
'Orders? -- For what?'
Christian laughed. The worst was over; after all, it came as a relief.
'Not for wines,' he replied. 'Mr Warricombe means that Peak is going to be ordained.'
Malkin's amazement rendered him speechless. He stared from one person to another, his features strangely distorted.
'You can hardly believe it?' pressed Buckland.
The reply was anticipated by Christian saying:
'Remember, Malkin, that you had no opportunity of studying Peak. It's not so easy to understand him.'
'But I don't see,' burst out the other, 'how I could possibly so misunderstand him! What has Earwaker to say?'
Buckland rose from his seat, advanced to Marcella, and offered his hand. She said mechanically, 'Must you go?' but was incapable of another word. Christian came to her relief, performed the needful civilities, and accompanied his acquaintance to the foot of the stairs. Buckland had become grave, stiff, monosyllabic; Christian made no allusion to the scene thus suddenly interrupted, and they parted with a formal air.
Malkin remained for another quarter of an hour, when the muteness of his companions made it plain to him that he had better withdraw. He went off with a sense of having been mystified, half resentful, and vastly impatient to see Earwaker.
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