Born in Exile
Part the Fifth[I] [II] [III] [IV]
The cuckoo clock in Mrs Roots's kitchen had just struck three. A wind roared from the north-east, and light thickened beneath a sky which made threat of snow. Peak was in a mood to enjoy the crackling fire; he settled himself with a book in his easy-chair, and thought with pleasure of two hours' reading, before the appearance of the homely teapot.
Christmas was just over -- one cause of the feeling of relief and quietness which possessed him. No one had invited him for Christmas Eve or the day that followed, and he did not regret it. The letter he had received from Martin Warricombe was assurance enough that those he desired to remember him still did so. He had thought of using this season for his long postponed visit to Twybridge, but reluctance prevailed. All popular holidays irritated and depressed him; he loathed the spectacle of multitudes in Sunday garb. It was all over, and the sense of that afforded him a brief content.
This book, which he had just brought from the circulating library, was altogether to his taste. The author, Justin Walsh, he knew to be a brother of Professor Walsh, long ago the object of his rebellious admiration. Matter and treatment rejoiced him. No intellectual delight, though he was capable of it in many forms, so stirred his spirit as that afforded him by a vigorous modern writer joyously assailing the old moralities. Justin Walsh was a modern of the moderns; at once man of science and man of letters; defiant without a hint of popular cynicism, scornful of English reticences yet never gross. 'Oui, répondit Pococurante, il est beau d'écrire ce qu 'on pense; c'est le privilège de l'homme.' This stood by way of motto on the title-page, and Godwin felt his nerves thrill in sympathetic response.
What a fine fellow he must be to have for a friend! Now a man like this surely had companionship enough and of the kind he wished? He wrote like one who associates freely with the educated classes both at home and abroad. Was he married? Where would he seek his wife? The fitting mate for him would doubtless be found among those women, cosmopolitan and emancipated, whose acquaintance falls only to men in easy circumstances and of good social standing, men who travel much, who are at home in all the great centres of civilisation.
As Peak meditated, the volume fell upon his knee. Had it not lain in his own power to win a reputation like that which Justin Walsh was achieving? His paper in The Critical Review, itself a decided success, might have been followed up by others of the same tenor. Instead of mouldering in a dull cathedral town, he might now be living and working in France or Germany. His money would have served one purpose as well as the other, and two or three years of determined effort ----
Mrs Roots showed her face at the door.
'A gentleman is asking for you, sir, -- Mr Chilvers.'
'Mr Chilvers? Please ask him to come up.'
He threw his book on to the table, and stood in expectancy. Someone ascended the stairs with rapid stride and creaking boots. The door was flung open, and a cordial but affected voice burst forth in greeting.
'Ha, Mr Peak! I hope you haven't altogether forgotten me? Delighted to see you again!'
Godwin gave his hand, and felt it strongly pressed, whilst Chilvers gazed into his face with a smiling wistfulness which could only be answered with a grin of discomfort. The Rev. Bruno had grown very tall, and seemed to be in perfect health; but the effeminacy of his brilliant youth still declared itself in his attitudes, gestures, and attire. He was dressed with marked avoidance of the professional pattern. A hat of soft felt but not clerical, fashionable collar and tie, a sweeping ulster, and beneath it a frock-coat, which was doubtless the pride of some West End tailor. His patent-leather boots were dandiacally diminutive; his glove fitted like that of a lady who lives but to be bien gantée. The feathery hair, which at Whitelaw he was wont to pat and smooth, still had its golden shimmer, and on his face no growth was permitted.
'I had heard of your arrival here, of course,' said Peak, trying to appear civil, though anything more than that was beyond his power. 'Will you sit down?'
'This is the "breathing time o' the day" with you, I hope? I don't disturb your work?'
'I was only reading this book of Walsh's. Do you know it?'
But for some such relief of his feelings, Godwin could not have sat still. There was a pleasure in uttering Walsh's name. Moreover, it would serve as a test of Chilvers' disposition.
'Walsh?' He took up the volume. 'Ha! Justin Walsh. I know him. A wonderful book! Admirable dialectic! Delicious style!'
'Not quite orthodox, I fancy,' replied Godwin, with a curling of the lips.
'Orthodox? Oh, of course not, of course not! But a rich vein of humanity. Don't you find that? -- Pray allow me to throw off my overcoat. Ha, thanks! -- A rich vein of humanity. Walsh is by no means to be confused with the nullifidians. A very broad-hearted, large-souled man; at bottom the truest of Christians. Now and then he effervesces rather too exuberantly. Yes, I admit it. In a review of his last book, which I was privileged to write for one of our papers, I ventured to urge upon him the necessity of restraint; it seems to me that in this new work he exhibits more self-control, an approach to the serene fortitude which I trust he may attain. A man of the broadest brotherliness. A most valuable ally of renascent Christianity.'
Peak was hardly prepared for this strain. He knew that Chilvers prided himself on 'breadth', but as yet he had enjoyed no intercourse with the broadest school of Anglicans, and was uncertain as to the limits of modern latitudinarianism. The discovery of such fantastic liberality in a man whom he could not but dislike and contemn gave him no pleasure, but at least it disposed him to amusement rather than antagonism. Chilvers' pronunciation and phraseology were distinguished by such original affectation that it was impossible not to find entertainment in listening to him. Though his voice was naturally thin and piping, he managed to speak in head notes which had a ring of robust utterance. The sound of his words was intended to correspond with their virile warmth of meaning. In the same way he had cultivated a habit of the muscles which conveyed an impression that he was devoted to athletic sports. His arms occasionally swung as if brandishing dumb-bells, his chest now and then spread itself to the uttermost, and his head was often thrown back in an attitude suggesting self-defence.
'So you are about to join us,' he exclaimed, with a look of touching interest, much like that of a ladies' doctor speaking delicately of favourable symptoms. Then, as if consciously returning to the virile note, 'I think we shall understand each other. I am always eager to study the opinions of those among us who have scientific minds. I hear of you on all hands; already you have strongly impressed some of the thinking people in Exeter.'
Peak crossed his legs and made no reply.
'There is distinct need of an infusion of the scientific spirit into the work of the Church. The churchman hitherto has been, as a matter of course, of the literary stamp; hence much of our trouble during the last half-century. It behoves us to go in for science-- physical, economic -- science of every kind. Only thus can we resist the morbific influences which inevitably beset an Established Church in times such as these. I say it boldly. Let us throw aside our Hebrew and our Greek, our commentators ancient and modern! Let us have done with polemics and with compromises! What we have to do is to construct a spiritual edifice on the basis of scientific revelation. I use the word revelation advisedly. The results of science are the divine message to our age; to neglect them, to fear them, is to remain under the old law whilst the new is demanding our adherence, to repeat the Jewish error of bygone time. Less of St Paul, and more of Darwin! Less of Luther, and more of Herbert Spencer!'
'Shall I have the pleasure of hearing this doctrine at St Margaret's?' Peak inquired.
'In a form suitable to the intelligence of my parishioners, taken in the mass. Were my hands perfectly free, I should begin by preaching a series of sermons on The Origin of species. Sermons! An obnoxious word! One ought never to use it. It signifies everything inept, inert.'
'Is it your serious belief, then, that the mass of parishioners here or elsewhere -- are ready for this form of spiritual instruction?'
'Most distinctly -- given the true capacity in the teacher. Mark me; I don't say that they are capable of receiving much absolute knowledge. What I desire is that their minds shall be relieved from a state of harassing conflict -- put at the right point of view. They are not to think that Jesus of Nazareth teaches faith and conduct incompatible with the doctrines of Evolutionism. They are not to spend their lives in kicking against the pricks, and regard as meritorious the punctures which result to them. The establishment in their minds of a few cardinal facts -- that is the first step. Then let the interpretation follow -- the solace, the encouragement, the hope for eternity!'
'You imagine,' said Godwin, with a calm air, 'that the mind of the average church-goer is seriously disturbed on questions of faith?'
'How can you ignore it, my dear Peak? -- Permit me this familiarity; we are old fellow-collegians. -- The average churchgoer is the average citizen of our English commonwealth, -- a man necessarily aware of the great Radical movement, and all that it involves. Forgive me. There has been far too much blinking of actualities by zealous Christians whose faith is rooted in knowledge. We gain nothing by it; we lose immensely. Let us recognise that our churches are filled with sceptics, endeavouring to believe in spite of themselves.'
'Your experience is much larger than mine,' remarked the listener, submissively.
'Indeed I have widely studied the subject.'
Chilvers smiled with ineffable self-content, his head twisted like that of a sagacious parrot.
'Granting your average citizen,' said the other, 'what about the average citizeness? The female church-goers are not insignificant in number.'
'Ha! There we reach the core of the matter! Woman! woman! Precisely there is the most hopeful outlook. I trust you are strong for female emancipation?'
'Oh, perfectly sound on that question!'
'To be sure! Then it must be obvious to you that women are destined to play the leading part in our Christian renascence, precisely as they did in the original spreading of the faith. What else is the meaning of the vast activity in female education? Let them be taught, and forthwith they will rally to our Broad Church. A man may be content to remain a nullifidian; women cannot rest at that stage. They demand the spiritual significance of everything. -- I grieve to tell you, Peak, that for three years I have been a widower. My wife died with shocking suddenness, leaving me her two little children. Ah, but leaving me also the memory of a singularly pure and noble being. I may say, with all humility, that I have studied the female mind in its noblest modern type. I know what can be expected of woman, in our day and in the future.'
'Mrs Chilvers was in full sympathy with your views?'
'Three years ago I had not yet reached my present standpoint. In several directions I was still narrow. But her prime characteristic was the tendency to spiritual growth. She would have accompanied me step by step. In very many respects I must regard myself as a man favoured by fortune, -- I know it, and I trust I am grateful for it, -- but that loss, my dear Peak, counterbalances much happiness. In moments of repose, when I look back on work joyously achieved, I often murmur to myself, with a sudden sigh, Excepto quod non simul esses, cætera Iætus!'
He pronounced his Latin in the new-old way, with Continental vowels. The effect of this on an Englishman's lips is always more or less pedantic, and in his case it was intolerable.
'And when,' he exclaimed, dismissing the melancholy thought, 'do you present yourself for ordination?'
It was his habit to pay slight attention to the words of anyone but himself, and Peak's careless answer merely led him to talk on wide subjects with renewal of energy. One might have suspected that he had made a list of uncommon words wherewith to adorn his discourse, for certain of these frequently recurred. 'Nullifidian', 'morbific', 'renascent', were among his favourites. Once or twice he spoke of 'psychogenesis', with an emphatic enunciation which seemed to invite respectful wonder. In using Latin words which have become fixed in the English language, he generally corrected the common errors of quantity: 'minnus the spiritual fervour', 'acting as his loccum tennens'. When he referred to Christian teachers with whom he was acquainted, they were seldom or never members of the Church of England. Methodists, Romanists, Presbyterians appeared to stand high in his favour, and Peak readily discerned that this was a way of displaying 'large-souled tolerance'. It was his foible to quote foreign languages, especially passages which came from heretical authors. Thus, he began to talk of Feuerbach for the sole purpose of delivering a German sentence.
'He has been of infinite value to me -- quite infinite value. You remember his definition of God? It is constantly in my mind. "Gott ist eine Träne der Liebe, in tiefster Verborgenheit vergossen über das menschliche EIend." Profoundly touching! I know nothing to approach it.'
Suddenly he inquired:
'Do you see much of the Exeter clergy?'
'I know only the Vicar of St Ethelreda's, Mr Lilywhite.'
'Ha! Admirable fellow! Large-minded, broad of sympathies. Has distinctly the scientific turn of thought.'
Peak smiled, knowing the truth. But he had hit upon a way of meeting the Rev. Bruno which promised greatly to diminish the suffering inherent in the situation. He would use the large-souled man deliberately for his mirth. Chilvers's self-absorption lent itself to persiflage, and by indulging in that mood Godwin tasted some compensation for the part he had to play.
'And I believe you know the Warricombes very well?' pursued Chilvers.
'Ha! I hope to see much of them. They are people after my own heart. Long ago I had a slight acquaintance with them. I hear we shan't see them till the summer.'
'I believe not.'
'Mr Warricombe is a great geologist, I think? -- Probably he frequents public worship as a mere tribute to social opinion?'
He asked the question in the airiest possible way, as if it mattered nothing to him what the reply might be.
'Mr Warricombe is a man of sincere piety,' Godwin answered, with grave countenance.
'That by no means necessitates church-going, my dear Peak,' rejoined the other, waving his hand.
'You think not? I am still only a student, you must remember. My mind is in suspense on not a few points.'
'Of course! Of course! Pray let me give you the results of my own thought on this subject.'
He proceeded to do so, at some length. When he had rounded his last period, he unexpectedly started up, swung on his toes, spread his chest, drew a deep breath, and with the sweetest of smiles announced that he must postpone the delight of further conversation.
'You must come and dine with me as soon as my house is in reasonable order. As yet, everything is sens dessus-dessous. Delightful old city, Exeter! Charming! Charming!'
And on the moment he was gone.
What were this man's real opinions? He had brains and literature; his pose before the world was not that of an ignorant charlatan. Vanity, no doubt, was his prime motive, but did it operate to make a cleric of a secret materialist, or to incite a display of excessive liberalism in one whose convictions were orthodox? Godwin could not answer to his satisfaction, but he preferred the latter surmise.
One thing, however, became clear to him. All his conscientious scruples about entering the Church were superfluous. Chilvers would have smiled pityingly at anyone who disputed his right to live by the Establishment, and to stand up as an authorised preacher of the national faith. And beyond a doubt he regulated his degree of 'breadth' by standards familiar to him in professional intercourse. To him it seemed all-sufficient to preach a gospel of moral progress, of intellectual growth, of universal fraternity. If this were the tendency of Anglicanism, then almost any man who desired to live a cleanly life, and to see others do the same, might without hesitation become a clergyman. The old formulæ of subscription were so symbolised, so volatilised, that they could not stand in the way of anyone but a combative nihilist. Peak was conscious of positive ideals by no means inconsistent with Christian teaching, and in his official capacity these alone would direct him.
He spent his evening pleasantly, often laughing as he recalled a phrase or gesture of the Rev. Bruno's.
In the night fell a sprinkling of snow, and when the sun rose it gleamed from a sky of pale, frosty blue. At ten o'clock Godwin set out for his usual walk, choosing the direction of the Old Tiverton Road. It was a fortnight since he had passed the Warricombes' house. At present he was disposed to indulge the thoughts which a sight of it would make active.
He had begun the ascent of the hill when the sound of an approaching vehicle caused him to raise his eyes -- they were generally fixed on the ground when he walked alone. It was only a hired fly. But, as it passed him, he recognised the face he had least expected to see, -- Sidwell Warricombe sat in the carriage, and unaccompanied. She noticed him -- smiled -- and bent forward. He clutched at his hat, but it happened that the driver had turned to look at him, and, instead of the salute he had intended, his hand waved to the man to stop. The gesture was scarcely voluntary; when he saw the carriage pull up, his heart sank; he felt guilty of monstrous impudence. But Sidwell's face appeared at the window, and its expression was anything but resentful; she offered her hand, too. Without preface of formal phrase he exclaimed:
'How delightful to see you so unexpectedly! Are you all here?'
'Only mother and I. We have come for a day or two.'
'Will you allow me to call? If only for a few minutes' ----
'We shall be at home this afternoon.'
'Thank you! Don't you enjoy the sunshine after London?'
'Indeed I do!'
He stepped back and signed to the driver. Sidwell bent her head and was out of sight.
But the carriage was visible for some distance, and even when he could no longer see it he heard the horse's hoofs on the hard road. Long after the last sound had died away his heart continued to beat painfully, and he breathed as if recovering from a hard run.
How beautiful were these lanes and hills, even in mid-winter! Once more he sang aloud in his joyous solitude. The hope he had nourished was not unreasonable; his boldness justified itself. Yes, he was one of the men who succeed, and the life before him would be richer for all the mistakes and miseries through which he had passed. Thirty, forty, fifty -- why, twenty years hence he would be in the prime of manhood, with perhaps yet another twenty years of mental and bodily vigour. One of the men who succeed!
On the morning after her journey down from London, Mrs Warricombe awoke with the conviction that she had caught a cold. Her health was in general excellent, and she had no disposition to nurse imaginary ailments, but when some slight disorder broke the routine of her life she made the most of it, enjoying -- much as children do -- the importance with which for the time it invested her. At such seasons she was wont to regard herself with a mildly despondent compassion, to feel that her family and her friends held her of slight account; she spoke in a tone of conscious resignation, often with a forgiving smile. When the girls redoubled their attentions, and soothed her with gentle words, she would close her eyes and sigh, seeming to remind them that they would know her value when she was no more.
'You are hoarse, mother,' Sidwell said to her, when they met at breakfast.
'Am I, dear? You know I felt rather afraid of the journey. I hope I shan't be laid up.'
Sidwell advised her not to leave the house to-day. Having seen the invalid comfortably established in an upper room, she went into the city on business which could not be delayed. On her way occurred the meeting with Peak, but of this, on her return, she made no mention. Mother and daughter had luncheon upstairs, and Sidwell was full of affectionate solicitude.
'This afternoon you had better lie down for an hour or two,' she said.
'Do you think so? Just drop a line to father, and warn him that we may kept here for some time.'
'Shall I send for Dr Endacott?'
'Just as you like, dear.'
But Mrs Warricombe had eaten such an excellent lunch, that Sidwell could not feel uneasy.
'We'll see how you are this evening. At all events, it will be safer for you not to go downstairs. If you lie quiet for an hour or two, I can look for those pamphlets that father wants.'
'Just as you like, dear.'
By three o'clock the invalid was calmly slumbering. Having entered the bedroom on tiptoe and heard regular breathing, Sidwell went down and for a few minutes lingered about the hall. A servant came to her for instructions on some domestic matter; when this was dismissed she mentioned that, if anyone called, she would be found in the library.
The pamphlets of which her father had spoken were soon discovered. She laid them aside, and seated herself by the fire, but without leaning back. At any sound within or outside the house she moved her head to listen. Her look was anxious, but the gleam of her eyes expressed pleasurable agitation.
At half-past three she went into the drawing-room, where all the furniture was draped, and the floor bare. Standing where she could look from a distance through one of the windows, at which the blind had been raised, she waited for a quarter of an hour. Then the chill atmosphere drove her back to the fireside. In the study, evidences of temporary desertion were less oppressive, but the windows looked only upon a sequestered part of the garden. Sidwell desired to watch the approach from the high-road, and in a few minutes she was again in the drawing-room. But scarcely had she closed the door behind her when a ringing of the visitors' bell sounded with unfamiliar distinctness. She started, hastened from the room, fled into the library, and had time to seat herself before she heard the footsteps of a servant moving in answer to the summons.
The door opened, and Peak was announced.
Sidwell had never known what it was to be thus overcome with emotion. Shame at her inability to command the calm features with which she would naturally receive a caller flushed her cheeks and neck; she stepped forward with downcast eyes, and only in offering her hand could at length look at him who stood before her. She saw at once that Peak was unlike himself; he too had unusual warmth in his countenance, and his eyes seemed strangely large, luminous. On his forehead were drops of moisture.
This sight restored her self-control, or such measure of it as permitted her to speak in the conventional way.
'I am sorry that mother can't leave her room. She had a slight cold this morning, but I didn't think it would give her any trouble.'
Peak was delighted, and betrayed the feeling even whilst he constrained his face into a look of exaggerated anxiety.
'It won't be anything serious, I hope? The railway journey, I'm afraid.'
'Yes, the journey. She has a slight hoarseness, but I think we shall prevent it from' ----
Their eyes kept meeting, and with more steadfastness. They were conscious of mutual scrutiny, and, on both sides, of changes since they last met. When two people have devoted intense study to each other's features, a three months' absence not only revives the old impressions but subjects them to sudden modification which engrosses thought and feeling. Sidwell continued to utter commonplaces, simply as a means of disguising the thoughts that occupied her; she was saying to herself that Peak's face had a purer outline than she had believed, and that his eyes had gained in expressiveness. In the same way Godwin said and replied he knew not what, just to give himself time to observe and enjoy the something new -- the increased animation or subtler facial movements -- which struck him as often as he looked at his companion. Each wondered what the other had been doing, whether the time had seemed long or short.
'I hope you have kept well?' Sidwell asked.
Godwin hastened to respond with civil inquiries.
'I was very glad to hear from Mr Warricombe a few days ago, he continued. Sidwell was not aware that her father had written, but her pleased smile seemed to signify the contrary.
'She looks younger,' Peak said in his mind. 'Perhaps that London dress and the new way of arranging her hair have something to do with it. But no, she looks younger in herself. She must have been enjoying the pleasures of town.'
'You have been constantly occupied, no doubt,' he added aloud, feeling at the same time that this was a clumsy expression of what he meant. Though he had unbuttoned his overcoat, and seated himself as easily as he could, the absurd tall hat which he held embarrassed him; to deposit it on the floor demanded an effort of which he was yet incapable.
'I have seen many things and heard much talk,' Sidwell was replying, in a gay tone. It irritated him; he would have preferred her to speak with more of the old pensiveness. Yet perhaps she was glad simply because she found herself again talking with him?
'And you?' she went on. 'It has not been all work, I hope?'
'Oh no! I have had many pleasant intervals.'
This was in imitation of her vivacity. He felt the words and the manner to be ridiculous, but could not restrain himself. Every moment increased his uneasiness; the hat weighed in his hands like a lump of lead, and he was convinced that he had never looked so clownish. Did her smile signify criticism of his attitude?
With a decision which came he knew not how, he let his hat drop to the floor and pushed it aside. There, that was better; he felt less of a bumpkin.
Sidwell glanced at the glossy grotesque, but instantly averted her eyes, and asked rather more gravely:
'Have you been in Exeter all the time?'
'But you didn't spend your Christmas alone, I hope?'
'Oh, I had my books.'
Was there not a touch of natural pathos in this? He hoped so; then mocked at himself for calculating such effects.
'I think you don't care much for ordinary social pleasures, Mr Peak?'
He smiled bitterly.
'I have never known much of them, -- and you remember that I look forward to a life in which they will have little part. Such a life,' he continued, after a pause, 'seems to you unendurably dull? I noticed that, when I spoke of it before.'
'You misunderstood me.' She said it so undecidedly that he gazed at her with puzzled look. Her eyes fell.
'But you like society?'
'If you use the word in its narrowest meaning,' she answered, 'then I not only dislike society, but despise it.'
She had raised her eyebrows, and was looking coldly at him. Did she mean to rebuke him for the tone he had adopted? Indeed, he seemed to himself presumptuous. But if they were still on terms such as these, was it not better to know it, even at the cost of humiliation? One moment he believed that he could read Sidwell's thoughts, and that they were wholly favourable to him; at another he felt absolutely ignorant of all that was passing in her, and disposed to interpret her face as that of a conventional woman who had never regarded him as on her own social plane. These uncertainties, these frequent reversions to a state of mind which at other times he seemed to have long outgrown, were a singular feature of his relations with Sidwell. Could such experiences consist with genuine love? Never had he felt more willing to answer the question with a negative. He felt that he was come here to act a part, and that the end of the interview, be it what it might, would only affect him superficially.
'No,' he replied, with deliberation; 'I never supposed that you had any interest in the most foolish class of wealthy people. I meant that you recognise your place in a certain social rank, and regard intercourse with your equals as an essential of happiness.'
'If I understood why you ask'-- she began abruptly, but ceased as she met his glance. Again he thought she was asserting a distant dignity.
'The question arose naturally out of a train of thought which always occupies me when I talk with you. I myself belong to no class whatever, and I can't help wondering how -- if the subject ever occurred to you -- you would place me.'
He saw his way now, and, having said thus much, could talk on defiantly. This hour must decide his fortune with Sidwell, yet his tongue utterly refused any of the modes of speech which the situation would have suggested to an ordinary mind. He could not 'make love'. Instead of humility, he was prompted to display a rough arrogance; instead of tender phrases, he uttered what sounded like deliberate rudeness. His voice was less gently tuned than Sidwell had been wont to hear it. It all meant that he despaired of wooing successfully, and more than half wished to force some word from Sidwell which would spare him the necessity of a plain avowal.
But before he had finished speaking, her face changed. A light of sudden understanding shone in her eyes; her lips softened to a smile of exquisite gentleness.
'The subject never did occur to me,' she answered. 'How should it? A friend is a friend.'
It was not strictly true, but in the strength of her emotion she could forget all that contradicted it.
'A friend -- yes.'
Godwin began with the same note of bluntness. But of a sudden he felt the influence of Sidwell's smile. His voice sank into a murmur, his heart leapt, a thrill went through his veins.
'I wish to be something more than a friend.'
He felt that it was bald, inadequate. Yet the words had come of their own accord, on an impulse of unimpaired sincerity. Sidwell's head was bent.
'That is why I can't take simple things for granted,' he continued, his gaze fixed upon her. 'If I thought of nothing but friendship, it would seem rational enough that you should accept me for what I am -- a man of education, talking your own language. Because I have dared to hope something more, I suffer from the thought that I was not born into your world, and that you must be always remembering this difference.'
'Do you think me so far behind the age?' asked Sidwell, trying to laugh.
'Classes are getting mixed, confused. Yes, but we are so conscious of the process that we talk of class distinctions more than of anything else, -- talk and think of them incessantly. You have never heard me make a profession of Radicalism; I am decidedly behind the age. Be what I may -- and I have spiritual pride more than enough -- the fact that I have relatives in the lower, even the lowest, social class must necessarily affect the whole course of my life. A certain kind of man declares himself proud of such an origin -- and most often lies. Or one may be driven by it into rebellion against social privilege. To me, my origin is simply a grave misfortune, to be accepted and, if possible, overcome. Does that sound mean-spirited? I can't help it; I want you to know me.'
'I believe I know you very well,' Sidwell replied.
The consciousness that she was deceived checked the words which were rising to his lips. Again he saw himself in a pitiful light, and this self-contempt reflected upon Sidwell. He could not doubt that she was yielding to him; her attitude and her voice declared it; but what was the value of love won by imposture? Why had she not intelligence enough to see through his hypocrisy, which at times was so thin a veil? How defective must her sympathy be!
'Yet you have seen very little of me,' he said, smiling.
There was a short silence; then he exclaimed in a voice of emotion:
'How I wish we had known each other ever since that day when your brother brought me to your house near Kingsmill! If we had met and talked through all those years! But that was impossible for the very reason which makes me inarticulate now that I wish to say so much. When you first saw me I was a gawky schoolboy, learning to use my brains, and knowing already that life had nothing to offer me but a false position. Whether I remained with my kith and kin, or turned my back upon them in the hope of finding my equals, I was condemned to a life of miserable incompleteness. I was born in exile. It took a long time before I had taught myself how to move and speak like one of the class to which I belonged by right of intellect. I was living alone in London, in mean lodging-houses. But the day came when I felt more confidence in myself. I had saved money, and foresaw that in a year or two I should be able to carry out a plan, make one serious attempt to win a position among educated people.'
He stopped. Had he intended a full confession, it was thus he might have begun it. Sidwell was regarding him, but with a gentle look, utterly unsuspecting. She was unable to realise his character and his temptations.
'And have you not succeeded?' she asked, in a low voice.
'Have I? Let me put it to the test. I will set aside every thought of presumption; forget that lam a penniless student looking forward to a country curacy; and say what I wished to when we had our last conversation. Never mind how it sounds. I have dared to hope that some day I shall ask you to be my wife, and that you won't refuse.'
The word 'wife' reverberated on his ears. A whirl of emotion broke the defiant calm he had supported for the last few minutes. The silence seemed to be endless; when he looked at Sidwell, her head was bent, the eyes concealed by their drooping lids. Her expression was very grave.
'Such a piece of recklessness,' he said at length, 'deserves no answer.'
Sidwell raised her eyes and spoke gently, with voice a little shaken.
'Why should you call it recklessness? I have never thought of the things that seem to trouble you so much. You were a friend of ours. Wasn't that enough?'
It seemed to him an evasive reply. Doubtless it was much that she showed neither annoyance nor prudish reserve. He had won the right of addressing her on equal terms, but she was not inclined to anticipate that future day to which he pointed.
'You have never thought of such things, because you have never thought of me as I of you. Every day of your absence in London has caused me torments which were due most often to the difference between your social position and mine. You have been among people of leisure and refinement and culture. Each evening you have talked with men whom it cost no effort to make themselves liked and respected. I think of that with bitterness.'
'But why? I have made many acquaintances; have met very interesting people. I am glad of it; it enables me to understand you better than I could before.'
'You are glad on that account?'
'Yes; indeed I am.'
'Dare I think you mean more than a civil phrase?'
'I mean quite simply all that my words imply. I have thought of you, though certainly without bitterness. No one's conversation in London interested me so much as yours.'
Soothed with an exquisite joy, Godwin felt his eyes moisten. For a moment he was reconciled to all the world, and forgot the hostilities of a lifetime.
'And will it still be so, now, when you go back?' he asked, in a soft tone.
'I am sure it will.'
'Then it will be strange if I ever feel bitterly again.'
'You could have said nothing that could please me more. Why should your life be troubled by these dark moods? I could understand it if you were still struggling with -- with doubts, with all manner of uncertainties about your course' ----
She hesitated, watching his face.
'You think I have chosen well?' said Godwin, meeting her look.
Sidwell's eyes were at once averted.
'I hope,' she said, 'we may talk of that again very soon. You have told me much of yourself, but I have said little or nothing of my own -- difficulties. It won't be long before we come back from London, and then' ----
Once more their eyes met steadily.
'You think,' Godwin asked, 'that I am right in aiming at a life of retirement?'
'It is one of my doubts. Your influence would be useful anywhere; but most useful, surely, among people of active mind.'
'Perhaps I shan't be able to choose. Remember that lam seeking for a livelihood as well as for a sphere of usefulness.'
His eyes fell as he spoke. Hitherto he had had no means of learning whether Sidwell would bring her husband a dowry substantial enough to be considered. Though he could not feel that she had betrothed herself to him, their talk was so nearly that of avowed lovers that perchance she would disclose whatever might help to put his mind at rest. The thought revived his painful self-consciousness; it was that of a schemer, yet would not the curse of poverty have suggested it to any man?
'Perhaps you won't be able to choose -- at first,' Sidwell assented, thereby seeming to answer his unspoken question. 'But I am sure my father will use whatever influence he has.'
Had he been seated near enough, he would have been tempted to the boldness of taking her hand. What more encouragement did he await? But the distance between them was enough to check his embarrassed impulses. He could not even call her 'Sidwell'; it would have been easier a few minutes ago, before she had begun to speak with such calm friendliness. Now, in spite of everything, he felt that to dare such a familiarity must needs call upon him the reproof of astonished eyes.
'You return to-morrow?' he asked, suddenly.
'I think so. You have promised me to be cheerful until we are home again.'
'A promise to be cheerful wouldn't mean much. But it does mean much that I can think of what you have said to-day'
Sidwell did not speak, and her silence seemed to compel him to rise. It was strange how remote he still felt from her pure, grave face, and the flowing outlines of her figure. Why could he not say to her, 'I love you; give me your hands; give me your lips'? Such words seemed impossible. Yet passion thrilled in him as he watched the grace of her movements, the light and shadow upon her features. She had risen and come a step or two forward.
'I think you look taller -- in that dress.'
The words rather escaped him than were spoken. His need was to talk of common things, of trifles, that so he might come to feel humanly.
Sidwell smiled with unmistakable pleasure.
'Do I? Do you like the dress?'
'Yes. It becomes you.'
'Are you critical in such things?'
'Not with understanding. But I should like to see you every day in a new and beautiful dress.'
'Oh, I couldn't afford it!' was the laughing reply.
He offered his hand; the touch of her warm, soft fingers fired his blood.
It was spoken at last, involuntarily, and he stood with his eyes on hers, her hand crushed in his.
'Some day!' she whispered.
If their lips met, the contact was so slight as to seem accidental; it was the mere timorous promise of a future kiss. And both were glad of the something that had imposed restraint.
When Sidwell went up to her mother's sitting-room, a servant had just brought tea.
'I hear that Mr Peak has been,' said Mrs Warricombe, who looked puffy and uncomfortable after her sleep. 'Emma was going to take tea to the study, but I thought it unnecessary. How could he know that we were here?'
'I met him this morning on my way into the town.'
'Surely it was rather inconsiderate of him to call.'
'He asked if he might.'
Mrs Warricombe turned her head and examined Sidwell.
'Oh! And did he stay long?'
'Not very long,' replied Sidwell, who was in quiet good-humour.
'I think it would have been better if you had told him by the servant that I was not well enough to see callers. You didn't mention that he might be coming.'
Mrs Warricombe's mind worked slowly at all times, and at present she was suffering from a cold.
'Why didn't you speak of it, Sidwell?'
'Really -- I forgot,' replied the daughter, lightly.
'And what had he to say?'
'Nothing new, mother. Is your head better, dear?'
There was no answer. Mrs Warricombe had conceived a vague suspicion which was so alarming that she would not press inquiries alluding to it. The encouragement given by her husband to Godwin Peak in the latter's social progress had always annoyed her, though she could not frame solid objections. To be sure, to say of a man that he is about to be ordained meets every possible question that society can put; but Mrs Warricombe's uneasiness was in part due to personal dislike. Oftener than not, she still thought of Peak as he appeared some eleven years ago -- an evident the story of his relative who had opened a shop in Kingsmill; plebeian, without manners, without a redeeming grace. She knew thinking of that now, she shuddered.
Sidwell began to talk of indifferent matters, and Peak was not again mentioned.
Her throat being still troublesome, Mrs Warricombe retired very soon after dinner. About nine o'clock Sidwell went to the library, and sat down at her father's writing-table, purposing a letter to Sylvia. She penned a line or two, but soon lapsed into reverie, her head on her hands. Of a sudden the door was thrown open, and there stood Buckland, fresh from travel.
'What has brought you?' exclaimed his sister, starting up anxiously, for something in the young man's look seemed ominous.
'Oh, nothing to trouble about. I had to come down -- on business. Mother gone to bed?'
'All right; doesn't matter. I suppose I can sleep here? Let them get me a mouthful of something; cold meat, anything will do.'
His needs were quickly supplied, and before long he was smoking by the library fire.
'I was writing to Sylvia,' said his sister, glancing at her fragmentary letter.
'You know she is at Salisbury?'
'Salisbury? No, I didn't.'
His carelessness proved to Sidwell that she was wrong in conjecturing that his journey had something to do with Miss Moorhouse. Buckland was in no mood for conversation; he smoked for a quarter of an hour whilst Sidwell resumed her writing.
'Of course you haven't seen Peak?' fell from him at length.
His sister looked at him before replying.
'Yes. He called this afternoon.'
'But who told him you were here?'
His brows were knitted, and he spoke very abruptly. Sidwell gave the same explanation as to her mother, and had further to reply that she alone received the caller.
'I see,' was Buckland's comment.
Its tone troubled Sidwell.
'Has your coming anything to do with Mr Peak?'
'Yes, it has. I want to see him the first thing to-morrow.
'Can you tell me what about?'
He searched her face, frowning.
'Not now. I'll tell you in the morning.'
Sidwell saw herself doomed to a night of suspense. She could not confess how nearly the mystery concerned her. Had Buckland made some discovery that irritated him against Peak? She knew he was disposed to catch at anything that seemed to tell against Godwin's claims to respectful treatment, and it surely must be a grave affair to hurry him on so long a journey. Though she could imagine no ground of fear, the situation was seriously disturbing.
She tried to go on with her letter, but failed. As Buckland smoked in silence, she at length rose and said she would go upstairs.
'All right! Shall see you at breakfast. Good-night!'
At nine next morning Mrs Warricombe sent a message to Buckland that she wished to see him in her bedroom. He entered hurriedly.
'Cold better, mother? I have only just time to drink a cup of coffee. I want to catch Peak before he can have left home.'
'Mr Peak? Why? I was going to speak about him.'
'What were you going to say?' Buckland asked, anxiously.
His mother began in a roundabout way which threatened long detention. In a minute or two Buckland had gathered enough to interrupt her with the direct inquiry:
'You don't mean that there's anything between him and Sidwell?'
'I do hope not; but I can't imagine why she should -- really, almost make a private appointment. I am very uneasy, Buckland. I have hardly slept. Sidwell is rather -- you know' ----
'The deuce! I can't stop now. Wait an hour or two, and I shall have seen the fellow. You needn't alarm yourself. He will probably have disappeared in a few days.'
'What do you mean?' Mrs Warricombe asked, with nervous eagerness.
'I'll explain afterwards.'
He hurried away. Sidwell was at the breakfast-table. Her eyes seemed to declare that she had not slept well. With an insignificant word or two, the young man swallowed his cup of coffee, and had soon left the house.
The wrath which illumined Buckland's countenance as he strode rapidly towards Longbrook Street was not unmingled with joy. In the deep pocket of his ulster lay something heavy which kept striking against his leg, and every such contact spurred him with a sense of satisfaction. All his suspicions were abundantly justified. Not only would his father and Sidwell be obliged to confess that his insight had been profounder than theirs, but he had the pleasure of standing justified before his own conscience. The philosophy by which he lived was strikingly illustrated and confirmed.
He sniffed the morning air, enjoyed the firmness of the frozen ground, on which his boots made a pleasant thud. To be sure, the interview before him would have its disagreeableness, but Buckland was not one of those over-civilised men who shrink from every scene of painful explanation. The detection of a harmful lie was decidedly congenial to him -- especially when he and his had been made its victims. He was now at liberty to indulge that antipathetic feeling towards Godwin Peak which sundry considerations had hitherto urged him to repress. Whatever might have passed between Peak and Sidwell, he could not doubt that his sister's peace was gravely endangered; the adventurer (with however much or little sincerity) had been making subtle love to her. Such a thought was intolerable. Buckland's class-prejudice asserted itself with brutal vigour now that it had moral indignation for an ally.
He had never been at Peak's lodgings, but the address was long since noted. Something of disdain came into his eyes as he approached the row of insignificant houses. Having pulled the bell, he stood at his full height, looking severely at the number painted on the door.
Mrs Roots opened to him, and said that her lodger was at home. He gave his name, and after waiting for a moment was led to the upper floor. Godwin, who had breakfasted later than usual, still sat by the table. On Warricombe's entrance, he pushed back his chair and rose, but with deliberate movement, scarcely smiling. That Buckland made no offer of a friendly hand did not surprise him. The name of his visitor had alarmed him with a sudden presentiment. Hardening his features, he stood in expectancy.
'I want to have a talk with you,' Buckland began. 'You are at leisure, I hope?'
'Pray sit down.'
Godwin pointed to a chair near the fire, but Warricombe, having thrown his hat on to a side table, seated himself by one of the windows. His motions proved that he found it difficult to support a semblance of courtesy.
'I have come down from London on purpose to see you. Unless I am strangely misinformed you have been guilty of conduct which I shouldn't like to call by its proper name.'
Remembering that he was in a little house, with thin partitions, he kept his voice low, but the effort this cost him was obvious. He looked straight at Peak, who did not return the gaze.
'Indeed?' said Godwin, coldly. 'What is my crime?'
'I am told that you have won the confidence of my relatives by what looks like a scheme of gross dishonesty.'
'Indeed? Who has told you so?'
'No one in so many words. But I happened to come across certain acquaintances of yours in London -- people who know you very well indeed; and I find that they regard your position here as altogether incredible. You will remember I had much the same feeling myself. In support of their view it was mentioned to me that you had published an article in The Critical -- the date less than a year ago, observe. The article was anonymous, but I remember it very well. I have re-read it, and I want you to tell me how the views it expresses can be reconciled with those you have maintained in conversation with my father.'
He drew from his pocket the incriminating periodical, turned it back at the article headed 'The New Sophistry', and held it out for inspection.
'Perhaps you would like to refresh your memory.'
'Needless, thank you,' returned Godwin, with a smile -- in which the vanity of an author had its part.
Had Marcella betrayed him? He had supposed she knew nothing of this article, but Earwaker had perhaps spoken of it to Moxey before receiving the injunction of secrecy. On the other hand, it might be Earwaker himself from whom Warricombe had derived his information. Not impossible for the men to meet, and Earwaker's indignation might have led him to disregard a friend's confidence.
The details mattered little. He was face to face with the most serious danger that could befall him, and already he had strung himself to encounter it. Yet even in the same moment he asked, 'Is it worth while?'
'Did you write this?' Buckland inquired.
'Yes, I wrote it.'
'Then I wait for your explanation.'
'You mustn't expect me to enter upon an elaborate defence,' Godwin replied, taking his pipe from the mantelpiece and beginning to fill it. 'A man charged with rascality can hardly help getting excited -- and that excitement, to one in your mood, seems evidence against him. Please to bear in mind that I have never declared myself an orthodox theologian. Mr Warricombe is well acquainted with my views; to you I have never explained them.'
'You mean to say that my father knew of this article?'
'No.I have not spoken of it.'
'And why not?'
'Because, for one thing, I shouldn't write in that way now; and, for another, the essay seems to imply more than I meant when I did write it.'
'"Seems to imply" ----? I understand. You wish to represent that this attack on M'Naughten involves no attack on Christianity?'
'Not on Christianity as I understand it.'
Buckland's face expressed profound disgust, but he controlled his speech.
'Well, I foresaw this. You attacked a new sophistry, but there is a newer sophistry still, and uncommonly difficult it is to deal with. Mr Peak, I have a plain word to say to you. More than a year ago you asked me for my goodwill, to aid you in getting a social position. Say what you like, I see now that you dealt with me dishonestly. I can no longer be your friend in any sense, and I shall do my best to have you excluded from my parents' house. My father will re-read this essay -- I have marked the significant passages throughout -- and will form his own judgment; I know what it will be.'
'You are within your rights.'
'Undoubtedly,' replied Buckland, with polished insolence, as he rose from his seat. 'I can't forbid you to go to the house again, but -- I hope we mayn't meet there. It would be very unpleasant.'
Godwin was still pressing down the tobacco in the bowl of his pipe. He smiled, and glanced about the room. Did Warricombe know how far things had gone between him and Sidwell? Whether or no, it was certain now that Sidwell would be informed of this disastrous piece of authorship -- and the result?
What did it matter? There is no struggling against destiny. If he and Sidwell were ever fated to come together, why, these difficulties would all be surmounted. If, as seemed more than likely, he was again to be foiled on the point of success -- he could bear it, perhaps even enjoy the comedy.
'There is no possibility of arguing against determined anger,' he said, quietly. 'I am not at all inclined to plead for justice: one only does that with a friend who desires to be just. My opinions are utterly distasteful to you, and personal motives have made you regard me as -- a scoundrel to be got rid of. Well, there's an end of it. I don't see what is to be gained by further talk.'
This was a dismissal. Godwin felt the necessity of asserting himself thus far.
'One question,' said Warricombe, as he put the periodical back into his pocket. 'What do you mean by my "personal motives"?'
Their eyes met for an instant.
'I mean the motives which you have spoken of.'
It was Buckland's hope that Peak might reveal his relations with Sidwell, but he shrank from seeming to know anything of the matter. Clearly, no light was to be had from this source.
'I am afraid,' he said, moving to the door, 'that you will find my motives shared by all the people whose acquaintance you have made in Exeter.'
And without further leave-taking he departed.
There was a doubt in his mind. Peak's coolness might be the audacity of rascaldom; he preferred to understand it so; but it might have nothing to do with baseness.
'Confound it!' he muttered to himself, irritably. 'In our times life is so deucedly complicated. It used to be the easiest thing to convict a man of religious hypocrisy; nowadays, one has to bear in mind such a multiplicity of fine considerations. There's that fellow Bruno Chilvers: mightn't anyone who had personal reasons treat him precisely as I have treated Peak? Both of them may be honest. Yet in Peak's case all appearances are against him -- just because he is of low birth, has no means, and wants desperately to get into society. The fellow is a scoundrel; I am convinced of it. Yet his designs may be innocent. How, then, a scoundrel? ----
'Poor devil! Has he really fallen in love with Sidwell? ----
'Humbug! He wants position, and the comfort it brings. And if he hadn't acted like a blackguard -- if he had come among us telling the truth -- who knows? Sidwell wouldn't then have thought of him, but for my own part I would willingly have given him a hand. There are plenty of girls who have learned to think for themselves.'
This was an unhappy line of reflection. It led to Sylvia Moorhouse -- and to grinding of the teeth. By the time he reached the house, Buckland was again in remorseless mood.
He would have it out with Sidwell. The desire of proving to her that he had been right from the first overrode all thought of the pain he might inflict.
She was in the library. At breakfast he had noticed her heavy eyes, and that she made only a pretence of eating. She was now less unlike herself, but her position at the window showed that she had been waiting impatiently.
'Isn't mother coming down to-day?' he asked.
'Yes; after luncheon she will go out for an hour, if it keeps fine.'
'And to-morrow you return?'
'If mother feels able to travel.'
He had The Criticalin his hand, and stood rustling the pages with his fingers.
'I have been to see Peak.'
She moved a few steps and seated herself sideways on a small chair.
'My business with him was confoundedly unpleasant. I'm glad it's over. I wish I had known what I now do half a year ago.'
'Let me hear what it is.'
'You remember that I told you to be on your guard against Peak?'
Sidwell smiled faintly, and glanced at him, but made no answer.
'I knew he wasn't to be trusted,' pursued her brother, with gloomy satisfaction. 'And I had far better means of judging than father or you; but, of course, my suspicions were ungenerous and cynical.'
'Will you come to the point?' said Sidwell, in an irritated tone.
'I think you read this article in The Critical?' He approached and showed it to her. 'We spoke of it once, à propos of M'Naughten's book.'
She raised her eyes, and met his with a look of concern she could not disguise.
'What of that?'
'Peak is the author of it. It seems to have been written just about the time when I met him and brought him here as a visitor, and it was published after he had begun to edify you with his zeal for Christianity.'
She held out her hand.
'You remember the tone of the thing?' Buckland added. 'I'll leave it with you; but just glance at one or two of the passages I have marked. The Anglicanism of their writer is decidedly "broad", it seems to me.'
He moved apart and watched his sister as she bent over the pages. There was silence for five minutes. Seeing that Sidwell had ceased to read, he ejaculated, 'Well?'
'Has Mr Peak admitted the authorship?' she asked, slowly and distinctly.
'Yes, and with a cool impudence I hardly expected.'
'Do you mean that he has made no attempt to justify himself?'
'None worth listening to. Practically, he refused an explanation.'
Sidwell rested her forehead lightly upon the tips of her fingers; the periodical slipped from her lap and lay open on the floor.
'How did you find this out?'
'In the simplest way. Knowing perfectly well that I had only to get familiar with some of his old friends to obtain proof that he was an impostor, I followed up my acquaintance with Miss Moxey -- got hold of her brother -- called upon them. Whilst I was there, a man named Malkin came in, and somehow or other he began talking of Peak. I learned at once precisely what I expected, that Peak was known to all these people as a violent anti-Christian. Malkin refused to believe the story of his going in for the Church -- it sounded to him a mere joke. Then came out the fact that he had written this article. They all knew about it.'
He saw a flush of shame upon Sidwell's half-hidden face. It gratified him. He was resolved to let her taste all the bitterness of her folly.
'It seems pretty clear that the Moxeys -- at all events Miss Moxey -- knew the rascally part he was playing. Whether they wished to unmask him, or not, I can't say. Perhaps not. Yet I caught an odd look on Miss Moxey's face when that man Malkin began to talk of Peak's characteristics and achievements. It came out, by-the-bye, that he had given all his acquaintances the slip; they had completely lost sight of him -- I suppose until Miss Moxey met him by chance at Budleigh Salterton. There's some mystery still. She evidently kept Peak's secret from the Moorhouses and the Walworths. A nice business, altogether!'
Again there was a long silence. Then Sidwell raised her face and said, abruptly:
'You may be quite mistaken.'
'You went to Mr Peak in a spirit of enmity and anger. It is not likely he would explain himself. You may have quite misunderstood what he said.'
'Ridiculous! You mean that he was perhaps "converted" after writing this article? -- Then why did he allow it to be published?'
'He did not sign it. He may have been unable to withdraw it from the editor's hands.'
'Bosh! He didn't sign it, because the idea of this Exeter campaign came between the reception and the appearance of his paper. In the ordinary course of things, he would have been only too glad to see his name in The Critical. The scoundrelly project was conceived perhaps the very day that I brought him here -- perhaps in that moment -- at lunch, do you remember? -- when he began to talk of the sermon at the Cathedral?'
'Why did he go to the Cathedral and hear that sermon?'
'To amuse a Sunday morning, I suppose.'
'That is not very likely in a man who hates and ridicules religion.'
'It is decidedly more probable than the idea of his conversion.'
Sidwell fell back again into her brooding attitude.
'The reason of your mistake in judging him,' resumed Buckland, with emphasis, 'is that you have undervalued his intellect. I told you long ago that a man of Peak's calibre could not possibly be a supporter of dogmas and churches. No amount of plausible evidence would have made me believe in his sincerity. Let me beg you to appreciate the simple fact, that no young man of brains and education is nowadays an honest defender of mediæval Christianity -- the Christianity of your churches. Such fellows may transact with their conscience, and make a more or less decent business of the clerical career; or, in rare cases, they may believe that society is served by the maintenance of a national faith, and accordingly preach with all manner of mental reserves and symbolical interpretations. These are in reality politicians, not priests. But Peak belongs to neither class. He is an acute cynic, bent on making the best of this world, since he believes in no other. How he must have chuckled after every visit to this house! He despises you, one and all. Believe me, he regards you with profound contempt.'
Buckland's obtuseness on the imaginative side spared him the understanding of his sister's state of mind. Though in theory he recognised that women were little amenable to reasoning, he took it for granted that a clear demonstration of Peak's duplicity must at once banish all thought of him from Sidwell's mind. Therefore he was unsparing in his assaults upon her delusion. It surprised him when at length Sidwell looked up with flashing, tear-dewed eyes and addressed him indignantly:
'In all this there is not one word of truth! You know that in representing the clergy as a body of ignorant and shallow men you speak out of prejudice. If you believed what you say, you would be yourself both ignorant and shallow. I can't trust your judgment of anyone whatever.'
She paused, but in a moment added the remark which would have come first had she spoken in the order of her thoughts.
'It is because the spirit of contempt is so familiar to you that you are so ready to perceive it in others. I consider that habit of mind worse than hypocrisy -- yes, worse, far worse!'
Buckland was sorry for the pain he had given. The retort did not affect him, but he hung his head and looked uncomfortable. His next speech was in a milder strain:
'I feel it a duty, Sidwell, to represent this man to you in what I verily believe to be the true light. To be despised by one who is immeasurably contemptible surely can't distress you. If a butler gets into your house by means of a forged character, and then lays his plans for a great burglary, no doubt he scorns you for being so easily taken in, -- and that is an exact parallel to Peak's proceedings. He has somehow got the exterior of a gentleman; you could not believe that one who behaved so agreeably and talked so well was concealing an essentially base nature. But I must remind you that Peak belongs by origin to the lower classes, which is as much as to say that he lacks the sense of honour generally inherited by men of our world. A powerful intellect by no means implies a corresponding development of the moral sense.'
Sidwell could not close her ears against the argument. But her features were still set in an expression of resentment, and she kept silence lest her voice should sound tearful.
'And don't be tempted by personal feeling,' pursued her brother, 'to make light of hypocrisy -- especially this kind. The man who can act such a part as Peak's has been for the last twelve months must be capable of any depravity. It is difficult for you to estimate his baseness, because you are only half convinced that any one can really be an enemy of religious faith. You suspect a lurking belief even in the minds of avowed atheists. But take the assurance from me that a man like Peak (and I am at one with him in this matter) regards with absolute repugnance every form of supernaturalism. For him to affect belief in your religion, is a crime against conscience. Peak has committed this crime with a mercenary motive, -- what viler charge could be brought against him?'
Without looking at him, his sister replied:
'Whether he is guilty or not, I can't yet determine. But the motive of his life here was not mercenary.'
'Then how would you describe it?' Buckland asked, in astonishment.
'I only know that it can't be called mercenary.'
'Then the distinction you draw must be a very fine one. -- He has abandoned the employment by which he lived, and by his own admission he looks to the Church for means of support. It was necessary for him to make interest with people of social position; the closer his relations with them the better. From month to month he has worked skilfully to establish his footing in this house, and among your friends. What do you call this?'
She had no verbal answer to make, but her look declared that she held to another interpretation.
'Well,' Buckland added, impatiently, 'we will hear father's opinion. He, remember, has been deceived in a very gross and cruel way. Possibly he may help you to see the thing in all its hatefulness.'
Sidwell turned to him.
'You go to London this afternoon?'
'In an hour or two,' he replied, consulting his watch.
'Is it any use my asking you to keep silence about everything until I am back in town?'
Buckland frowned and hesitated.
'To mother as well as father, you mean?'
'Yes. Will you do me this kindness?'
'Answer me a question, Sidwell. Have you any thought of seeing Peak?'
'I can't say,' she replied, in agitation. 'I must leave myself free. I have a right to use my own judgment.'
'Don't see him! I beg you not to see him!'
He was so earnest that Sidwell suspected some other reason in his request than regard for her dignity.
'I must leave myself free,' she repeated, with shaking voice. 'In any case I shall be back in London to-morrow evening -- that is, if -- but I am sure mother will wish to go. Grant me this one kindness; say nothing here or there till I am back and have seen you again.'
He turned a deaf ear, for the persistency with which she resisted proof of Peak's dishonour had begun to alarm him. Who could say what miserable folly she might commit in the next four-and-twenty hours? The unavoidable necessity of his own return exasperated him; he wished to see her safe back in London, and under her father's care.
'No,' he exclaimed, with a gesture of determination; 'I can't keep such a thing as this secret for another hour. Mother must know at once-- especially as you mean to invite that fellow into the house again. -- I have half a mind to telegraph to Godolphin that I can't possibly be with him to-night.'
Sidwell regarded him and spoke with forced composure.
'Do as seems right to you, Buckland. But don't think that by remaining here you would prevent me from seeing Mr Peak, if I wish to do so. That is treating me too much like a child. You have done your part -- doubtless your duty; now I must reflect and judge for myself. Neither you nor anyone else has authority over me in such circumstances.'
'Very well. I have no authority, as you say, but common sense bids me let mother know how the case stands.'
And angrily he left the room.
The Critical still lay where it had fallen. When Sidwell had stood a while in confused thought, her eye turned to it, and she went hurriedly to take it up. Yes, that was the first thing to be done, to read those pages with close care. For this she must have privacy. She ran upstairs and shut herself in her bedroom.
But did not at once begin to read. It concerned her deeply to know whether Peak had so expressed himself in this paper, that no room was left for doubt as to his convictions; but another question pressed upon her with even more urgency -- could it be true that he did not love her? If Buckland were wholly right, then it mattered little in what degree she had been misled by intellectual hypocrisy.
It was impossible to believe that Peak had made love to her in cold blood, with none but sordid impulses. The thought was so humiliating that her mind resolutely rejected it; and she had no difficulty in recalling numberless minutiae of behaviour -- nuances of look and tone such as abide in a woman's memory -- any one of which would have sufficed to persuade her that he felt genuine emotion. How had it come to pass that a feeling of friendly interest, which did not for a moment threaten her peace, changed all at once to an agitation only the more persistent the more she tried to subdue it, -- how, if it were not that her heart responded to a passionate appeal, effectual as only the sincerest love can prove? Prior to that long talk with Godwin, on the eve of her departure for London, she had not imagined that he loved her; when they said good-bye to each other, she knew by her own sensations all that the parting meant to him. She felt glad, instead of sorry, that they were not to meet again for several months; for she wished to think of him calmly and prudently, now that he presented himself to her imagination in so new an aspect. The hand-clasp was a mutual assurance of fidelity.
'I should never have loved him, if he had not first loved me. Of that I am as firmly convinced as of my own existence. It is not in my nature to dream romances. I never did so even as a young girl, and at this age I am not likely to fall into a foolish self-deception. I had often thought about him. He seemed to me a man of higher and more complex type than those with whom I was familiar; but most surely I never attributed to him even a corresponding interest in me. I am neither vain, nor very anxious to please; I never suffered because men did not woo me; I have only moderate good looks, and certainly no uncommon mental endowments. -- If he had been attracted by Sylvia, I should have thought it natural; and I more than once suspected that Sylvia was disposed to like him. It seemed strange at first that his choice should have fallen upon me; yet when I was far away from him, and longed so to sit once more by him and hear him talk, I understood that it might be in my power to afford him the companionship he needed. -- Mercenary? If I had been merely a governess in the house, he would have loved me just the same!'
Only by a painful effort could she remind herself that the ideal which had grown so slowly was now defaced. He loved her, but it was not the love of an honest man. After all, she had no need to peruse this writing of his; she remembered so well how it had impressed her when she read it on its first appearance, how her father had spoken of it. Buckland's manifold evidence was irresistible. Why should Peak have concealed his authorship? Why had he disappeared from among the people who thoroughly knew him?
She had loved a dream. What a task would it be to distinguish between those parts of Peak's conversation which represented his real thoughts, and those which were mockery of his listeners! The plan of a retired life which he had sketched to her -- was it all falsehood? Impossible, for his love was inextricably blended with the details. Did he imagine that the secret of his unbelief could be preserved for a lifetime, and that it would have no effect whatever upon his happiness as a man? This seemed a likely reading of the problem. But what a multitude of moral and intellectual obscurities remained! The character which had seemed to her nobly simple was become a dark and dread enigma.
She knew so little of his life. If only it could all be laid bare to her, the secret of his position would be revealed. Buckland's violence altogether missed its mark; the dishonour of such a man as Godwin Peak was due to no gross incentive.
It was probable that, in talk with her father, he had been guilty of more deliberate misrepresentation than had marked his intercourse with the rest of the family. Her father, she felt sure, had come to regard him as a valuable source of argument in the battle against materialism. Doubtless the German book, which Peak was translating, bore upon that debate, and consequently was used as an aid to dissimulation. Thinking of this, she all but shared her brother's vehement feeling. It pained her to the inmost heart that her father's generous and candid nature should thus have been played upon. The deceit, as it concerned herself alone, she could forgive; at least she could suspend judgment until the accused had offered his defence -- feeling that the psychology of the case must till then be beyond her powers of analysis. But the wrong done to her father revolted her.
A tap at the door caused her to rise, trembling. She remembered that by this time her mother must be aware of the extraordinary disclosure, and that a new scene of wretched agitation had to be gone through.
It was Mrs Warricombe's voice, and the door opened.
'Sidwell! -- What does all this mean? I don't understand half that Buckland has been telling me.'
The speaker's face was mottled, and she stood panting, a hand pressed against her side.
'How very, very imprudent we have been! How wrong of father not to have made inquiries! To think that such a man should have sat at our table!'
'Sit down, mother; don't be so distressed,' said Sidwell, calmly. 'It will all very soon be settled.'
'Of course not a word must be said to anyone. How very fortunate that we shall be in London till the summer! Of course he must leave Exeter.'
'I have no doubt he will. Let us talk as little of it as possible, mother. We shall go back to-morrow' ----
'This afternoon! We will go back with Buckland. That is decided. I couldn't sleep here another night.'
'We must remain till to-morrow,' Sidwell replied, with quiet determination.
'Why? What reason can there be?'
Mrs Warricombe's voice was suspended by a horrible surmise.
'Of course we shall go to-day, Sidwell,' she continued, in nervous haste. 'To think of that man having the impudence to call and sit talking with you! If I could have dreamt' ----
'Mother,' said Sidwell, gravely, 'I am obliged to see Mr Peak, either this evening or to-morrow morning.'
'To--tosee him----? Sidwell! What can you mean?'
'I have a reason for wishing to hear from his own lips the whole truth.'
'But we know the whole truth! -- What can you be thinking of, dear? Who is this Mr Peak that you should ask him to come and see you, underany circumstances?'
It would never have occurred to Sidwell to debate with her mother on subtle questions of character and motive, but the agitation of her nerves made it difficult for her to keep silence under these vapid outcries. She desired to be alone; commonplace discussion of the misery that had come upon her was impossible. A little more strain, and she would be on the point of tears, a weakness she was resolute to avoid.
'Let me think quietly for an hour or two,' she said, moving away. 'It's quite certain that I must stay here till to-morrow. When Buckland has gone, we can talk again.'
'But, Sidwell' ----
'If you insist, I must leave the house, and find a refuge somewhere else.'
Mrs Warricombe tossed her head.
'Oh, if I am not permitted to speak to you! I only hope you won't have occasion to remember my warning! Such extraordinary behaviour was surely never known! I should have thought' ----
Sidwell was by this time out of the room. Safe in privacy she sat down as if to pen a letter. From an hour's agitated thought, the following lines resulted:
This, with her signature, was all. Having enclosed the note in an envelope, she left it on her table and went down to the library, where Buckland was sitting alone in gloomy reverie. Mrs Warricombe had told him of Sidwell's incredible purpose. Recognising his sister's independence, and feeling sure that if she saw Peak it could only be to take final leave of him, he had decided to say no more. To London he must perforce return this afternoon, but he had done his duty satisfactorily, and just in time. It was plain that things had gone far between Peak and Sidwell; the latter's behaviour avowed it. But danger there could be none, with 'The New Sophistry' staring her in the eyes. Let her see the fellow, by all means. His evasions and hair-splittings would complete her deliverance.
'There's a train at 1.53,' Buckland remarked, rising, 'and I shall catch it if I start now. I can't stay for the discomfort of luncheon. You remain here till to-morrow, I understand?'
'It's a pity you are angry with me. It seems to me I have done you a kindness.'
'I am not angry with you, Buckland,' she replied, gently. 'You have done what you were plainly obliged to do.'
'That's a sensible way of putting it. Let us say goodbye with friendliness then.'
Sidwell gave her hand, and tried to smile. With a look of pained affection, Buckland went silently away.
Shortly after, Sidwell fetched her note from upstairs, and gave it to the housekeeper to be delivered by hand as soon as possible. Mrs Warricombe remained invisible, and Sidwell went back to the library, where she sat with The Critical open before her at Godwin's essay.
Hours went by; she still waited for an answer from Longbrook Street.
At six o'clock she went upstairs and spoke to her mother.
'Shall you come down to dinner?'
'No, Sidwell,' was the cold reply. 'Be so good as to excuse me.
Towards eight, a letter was brought to her; it could only be from Godwin Peak. With eyes which endeavoured to take in all at once, and therefore could at first distinguish nothing, she scanned what seemed to be hurriedly written lines.
She read this so many times that at length she had but to close her eyes to see every word clearly traced on the darkness. The meanings she extracted from each sentence were scarcely less numerous than her perusals. In spite of reason, this enigmatic answer brought her some solace. He could defend himself; that was the assurance she had longed for. Impossible (she again and again declared to herself with emphasis) for their intimacy to be resumed. But in secret she could hold him, if not innocent, at all events not base. She had not bestowed her love upon a mere impostor.
But now a mournful, regretful passion began to weigh upon her heart. She shed tears, and presently stole away to her room for a night of sorrow.
What must be her practical course? If she went back to London without addressing another word to him, he must understand her silence as a final farewell. In that case his departure from Exeter would, no doubt, speedily follow, and there was little likelihood that she would ever again see him. Were Godwin a vulgar schemer, he would not so readily relinquish the advantage he had gained; he would calculate upon the weakness of a loving woman, and make at least one effort to redeem his position. As it was, she could neither hope nor fear that he would try to see her again. Yet she wished to see him, desired it ardently.
And yet -- for each impulse of ardour was followed by a cold fit of reasoning -- might not his abandonment of the position bear a meaning such as Buckland would of course attribute to it? If he were hopeless of the goodwill of her parents, what profit would it be to him to retain her love? She was no heiress; supposing him actuated by base motive, her value in his eyes came merely of his regarding her as a means to an end.
But this was to reopen the question of whether or not he truly loved her. No; he was forsaking her because he thought it impossible for her to pardon the deceit he had undeniably practised -- with whatever palliating circumstances. He was overcome with shame. He imagined her indignant, scornful.
Why had she written such a short, cold note, the very thing to produce in his mind a conviction of her resentment?
Hereupon came another paroxysm of tearful misery. It was intensified by a thought she had half consciously been repressing ever since the conversation with her brother. Was it true that Miss Moxey had had it in her power to strip Godwin of a disguise? What, then, were the relations existing between him and that strangely impressive woman? How long had they known each other? It was now all but certain that a strong intellectual sympathy united their minds -- and perhaps there had been something more.
She turned her face upon the pillow and moaned.
And from the Moxeys Buckland had derived his information. What was it he said -- something about 'an odd look' on Miss Moxey's face when that friend of theirs talked of Peak? Might not such a look signify a conflict between the temptation to injure and the desire to screen?
Sidwell constructed a complete romance. Ignorance of the past of both persons concerned allowed her imagination free play. There was no limit to the possibilities of self-torment.
The desire to see Godwin took such hold upon her, that she had already begun to think over the wording of another note to be sent to him the first thing in the morning. His reply had been insufficient: simple justice required that she should hear him in his own defence before parting with him for ever. If she kept silence, he would always remember her with bitterness, and this would make her life-long sorrow harder to bear. Sidwell was one of those few women whose love, never demonstrative, never exigent, only declares itself in all its profound significance when it is called upon to pardon. What was likely to be the issue of a meeting with Godwin she could not foresee. It seemed all but impossible for their intercourse to continue, and their coming face to face might result in nothing but distress to both, better avoided; yet judgment yielded to emotion. Yesterday -- only yesterday -- she had yielded herself to the joy of loving, and before her consciousness had had time to make itself familiar with its new realm, before her eyes had grown accustomed to the light suddenly shed about her, she was bidden to think of what had happened as only a dream. Her heart refused to make surrender of its hope. Though it could be held only by an encouragement of recognised illusion, she preferred to dream yet a little longer. Above all, she must taste the luxury of forgiving her lover, of making sure that her image would not dwell in his mind as that of a self-righteous woman who had turned coldly from his error, perhaps from his repentance.
A little after midnight, she rose from bed, slipped on her dressing-gown, and sat down by the still burning lamp to write what her passion dictated:
To have committed this to paper was a relief. In the morning she would read it over and consider again whether she wished to send it.
On the table lay The Critical. She opened it once more at the page that concerned her, and glanced over the first few lines. Then, having put the lamp nearer to the bed, she again lay down, not to sleep but to read.
This essay was not so repugnant to her mind or her feelings as when she first became acquainted with it. Its bitterness no longer seemed to be directed against herself. There was much in it with which she could have agreed at any time during the last six months, and many strokes of satire, which till the other day would have offended her, she now felt to be legitimate. As she read on, a kind of anger such as she had never experienced trembled along her nerves. Was it not flagrantly true that English society at large made profession of a faith which in no sense whatever it could be said sincerely to hold? Was there not every reason to believe that thousands of people keep up an ignoble formalism, because they feared the social results of declaring their severance from the religion of the churches? This was a monstrous evil; she had never till this moment understood the scope of its baneful effects. But for the prevalence of such a spirit of hypocrisy, Godwin Peak would never have sinned against his honour. Why was it not declared in trumpet-tones of authority, from end to end of the Christian world, that Christianity, as it has been understood through the ages, can no longer be accepted? For that was the truth, the truth, the truth!
She lay back, quivering as if with terror. For an instant her soul had been filled with hatred of the religion for which she could once have died. It had stood before her as a power of darkness and ignorance, to be assailed, crushed, driven from the memory of man.
Last night she had hardly slept, and now, though her body was numb with weariness, her mind kept up a feverish activity. She was bent on excusing Godwin, and the only way in which she could do so was by arraigning the world for its huge dishonesty. In a condition between slumber and waking, she seemed to plead for him before a circle of Pharisaic accusers. Streams of silent eloquence rushed through her brain, and the spirit which prompted her was closely akin to that of 'The New Sophistry'. Now and then, for a few seconds, she was smitten with a consciousness of extraordinary change in her habits of thought. She looked about her with wide, fearful eyes, and endeavoured to see things in the familiar aspect. As if with physical constraint her angry imagination again overcame her, until at length from the penumbra of sleep she passed into its profoundest gloom.
To wake when dawn was pale at the window. A choking odour reminded her that she had not extinguished the lamp, which must have gone out for lack of oil. She opened the window, took a draught of water, and addressed herself to sleep again. But in recollecting what the new day meant for her, she had spoilt the chances of longer rest. Her head ached; all worldly thoughts were repulsive, yet she could not dismiss them. She tried to repeat the prayers she had known since childhood, but they were meaningless, and a sense of shame attached to their utterance.
When the first gleam of sun told her that it was past eight o clock, she made an effort and rose.
At breakfast Mrs Warricombe talked of the departure for London. She mentioned an early train; by getting ready as soon as the meal was over, they could easily reach the station in time. Sidwell made no direct reply and seemed to assent; but when they rose from the table, she said, nervously:
'I couldn't speak before the servants. I wish to stay here till the afternoon.'
'I have asked Mr Peak to come and see me this morning.'
Her mother knew that expostulation was useless, but could not refrain from a long harangue made up of warning and reproof.
'You have very little consideration for me,' was her final remark. 'Now we shan't get home till after dark, and of course my throat will be bad again.'
Glad of the anti-climax, Sidwell replied that the day was much warmer, and that with care no harm need come of the journey.
'It's easy to say that, Sidwell. I never knew you to behave so selfishly, never!'
'Don't be angry with me, mother. You don't know how grieved I am to distress you so. I can't help it, dear; indeed, I can't. Won't you sacrifice a few hours to put my mind at rest?'
Mrs Warricombe once more gave expression to her outraged feelings. Sidwell could only listen silently with bent head.
If Godwin were coming at all, he would be here by eleven o'clock. Sidwell had learnt that her letter was put into his hands. She asked him to come at once, and nothing but a resolve not to meet her could delay him more than an hour or two.
At half-past ten the bell sounded. She was sitting in the library with her back turned to the door. When a voice announced 'Mr Peak', she did not at once rise, and with a feeling akin to terror she heard the footstep slowly approaching. It stopped at some distance from her; then, overcoming a weakness which threatened to clog her as in a nightmare, she stood up and looked round.
Peak wore neither overcoat nor gloves, but otherwise was dressed in the usual way. As Sidwell fixed her eyes upon him, he threw his hat into a chair and came a step or two nearer. Whether he had passed the night in sleep or vigil could not be determined; but his look was one of shame, and he did not hold himself so upright as was his wont.
'Will you come and sit down?' said Sidwell, pointing to a chair not far from that on which one of her hands rested.
He moved forward, and was about to pass near her, when Sidwell involuntarily held her hand to him. He took it and gazed into her face with a melancholy smile.
'What does it mean?' she asked, in a low voice.
He relinquished her fingers, which he had scarcely pressed, and stood with his arms behind his back.
'Oh, it's all quite true,' was his reply, wearily spoken.
'What is true?'
'All that you have heard from your brother.'
'All? -- But how can you know what he has said?'
They looked at each other. Peak's lips were set as if in resistance of emotion, and a frown wrinkled his brows. Sidwell's gaze was one of fear and appeal.
'He said, of course, that I had deceived you.'
'But in what? -- Was there no truth in anything you said to me?'
'To you I have spoken far more truth than falsehood.'
A light shone in her eyes, and her lips quivered.
'Then,' she murmured, 'Buckland was not right in everything.'
'I understand. He wished you to believe that my love was as much a pretence as my religion?'
'He said that.'
'It was natural enough. -- And you were disposed to believe it?'
'I thought it impossible. But I should have thought the same of the other things.'
Peak nodded, and moved away. Watching him, Sidwell was beset with conflicting impulses. His assurance had allayed her worst misgiving, and she approved the self-restraint with which he bore himself, but at the same time she longed for a passionate declaration. As a reasoning woman, she did her utmost to remember that Peak was on his defence before her, and that nothing could pass between them but grave discussion of the motives which had impelled him to dishonourable behaviour. As a woman in love, she would fain have obscured the moral issue by indulgence of her heart's desire. She was glad that he held aloof, but if he had taken her in his arms, she would have forgotten everything in the moment's happiness.
'Let us sit down, and tell me -- tell me all you can.'
He delayed a moment, then seated himself opposite to her. She saw now that his movements were those of physical fatigue; and the full light from the window, enabling her to read his face more distinctly, revealed the impress of suffering. Instead of calling upon him to atone in such measure as was possible for the wrong he had done her, she felt ready to reproach herself for speaking coldly when his need of solace was so great.
'What can I tell you,' he said, 'that you don't know, or that you can't conjecture?'
'But you wrote that there was so much I could not be expected to understand. And I can't, can't understand you. It still seems impossible. Why did you hide the truth from me?'
'Because if I had begun by telling it, I should never have won a kind look or a kind thought from you.'
'But what did you care for me then -- when it began?'
'Not so much as I do now, but enough to overthrow all the results of my life up to that time. Before I met you in this house I had seen you twice, and had learned who you were. I was sitting in the Cathedral when you came there with your sister and Miss Moorhouse -- do you remember? I heard Fanny call you by your name, and that brought to my mind a young girl whom I had known in a slight way years before. And the next day I again saw you there, at the service; I waited about the entrance only to see you. I cared enough for you then to conceive a design which for a long time seemed too hateful really to be carried out, but -- at last it was, you see.
Sidwell breathed quickly. Nothing he could have urged for himself would have affected her more deeply than this. To date back and extend the period of his love for her was a flattery more subtle than Peak imagined.
'Why didn't you tell me that the day before yesterday?' she asked, with tremulous bosom.
'I had no wish to remind myself of baseness in the midst of a pure joy.'
She was silent, then exclaimed, in accents of pain:
'Why should you have thought it necessary to be other than yourself? Couldn't you see, at first meeting with us, that we were not bigoted people? Didn't you know that Buckland had accustomed us to understand how common it is nowadays for people to throw off the old religion? Would father have looked coldly on you if he had known that you followed where so many good and thoughtful men were leading?'
He regarded her anxiously.
'I had heard from Buckland that your father was strongly prejudiced; that you also were quite out of sympathy with the new thought.'
'He exaggerated--even then.'
'Exaggerated? But on what plea could I have come to live in this neighbourhood? How could I have kept you in sight -- tried to win your interest? I had no means, no position. The very thought of encouraging my love for you demanded some extraordinary step. What course was open to me?'
Sidwell let her head droop.
'I don't know. You might perhaps have discovered a way.'
'But what was the use, when the mere fact of my heresy would have forbidden hope from the outset?'
'Why should it have done so?'
'Why? You know very well that you could never even have been friendly with the man who wrote that thing in the review.'
'But here is the proof how much better it is to behave truthfully! In this last year I have changed so much that I find it difficult to understand the strength of my former prejudices. What is it to me now that you speak scornfully of attempts to reconcile things that can't be reconciled? I understand the new thought, and how natural it is for you to accept it. If only I could have come to know you well, your opinions would not have stood between us.'
Peak made a slight gesture, and smiled incredulously.
'You think so now.'
'And I have such good reason for my thought,' rejoined Sidwell, earnestly, 'that when you said you loved me, my only regret in looking to the future was -- that you had resolved to be a clergyman.'
He leaned back in the chair, and let a hand fall on his knee. The gesture seemed to signify a weary relinquishment of concern in what they were discussing.
'How could I foresee that?' he uttered, in a corresponding tone.
Sidwell was made uneasy by the course upon which she had entered. To what did her words tend? If only to a demonstration that fate had used him as the plaything of its irony -- if, after all, she had nothing to say to him but 'See how your own folly has ruined you', then she had better have kept silence. She not only appeared to be offering him encouragement, but was in truth doing so. She wished him to understand that his way of thinking was no obstacle to her love, and with that purpose she was even guilty of a slight misrepresentation. For it was only since the shock of this disaster that she had clearly recognised the change in her own mind. True, the regret of which she spoke had for an instant visited her, but it represented a mundane solicitude rather than an intellectual scruple. It had occurred to her how much brighter would be their prospect if Peak were but an active man of the world, with a career before him distinctly suited to his powers.
His contention was undeniably just. The influence to which she had from the first submitted was the same that her father felt so strongly. Godwin interested her as a self-reliant champion of the old faiths, and his personal characteristics would never have awakened such sympathy in her but for that initial recommendation. Natural prejudice would have prevented her from perceiving the points of kindred between his temperament and her own. His low origin, the ridiculous stories connected with his youth -- why had she, in spite of likelihood, been able to disregard these things? Only because of what she then deemed his spiritual value.
But for the dishonourable part he had played, this bond of love would never have been formed between them. The thought was a new apology for his transgression; she could not but defy her conscience, and look indulgently on the evil which had borne such fruit.
Godwin had begun to speak again.
'This is quite in keeping with the tenor of my whole life. Whatever I undertake ends in frustration at a point where success seems to have just come within my reach. Great things and trifles -- it's all the same. My course at College was broken off at the moment when I might have assured my future. Later, I made many an effort to succeed in literature, and when at length something of mine was printed in a leading review, I could not even sign it, and had no profit from the attention it excited. Now -- well, you see. Laughable, isn't it?'
Sidwell scarcely withheld herself from bending forward and giving him her hand.
'What shall you do?' she asked.
'Oh, I am not afraid. I have still enough money left to support me until I can find some occupation of the old kind. Fortunately, I am not one of those men whose brains have no marketable value.'
'If you knew how it pains me to hear you!'
'If I didn't believe that, I couldn't speak to you like this. I never thought you would let me see you again, and if you hadn't asked me to come, I could never have brought myself to face you. But it would have been a miserable thing to go off without even knowing what you thought of me.'
'Should you never have written to me?'
'I think not. You find it hard to imagine that I have any pride, no doubt; but it is there, explain it how one may.'
'It would have been wrong to leave me in such uncertainty.'
'About you -- about your future.'
'Did you quite mean that? Hadn't your brother made you doubt whether I loved you at all?'
'Yes. But no, I didn't doubt. Indeed, indeed, I didn't doubt! But I felt such a need of hearing from your own lips that -- Oh, I can't explain myself!'
Godwin smiled sadly.
'I think I understand. But there was every reason for my believing that your love could not bear such a test. You must regard me as quite a different man-- one utterly unknown to you.'
He had resolved to speak not a word that could sound like an appeal to her emotions. When he entered the room he felt a sincere indifference as to what would result from the interview, for to his mind the story was ended, and he had only to retire with the dignity still possible to a dishonoured man. To touch the note of pathos would be unworthy; to exert what influence might be left to him, a wanton cruelty. But he had heard such unexpected things, that it was not easy for him to remember how complete had seemed the severance between him and Sidwell. The charm of her presence was reasserting itself, and when avowal of continued love appeared so unmistakably in her troubled countenance, her broken words, he could not control the answering fervour. He spoke in a changed voice, and allowed his eyes to dwell longingly upon hers.
'I felt so at first,' she answered. 'And it would be wrong to pretend that I can still regard you as I did before.'
It cost her a great effort to add these words. When they were spoken, she was at once glad and fearful.
'I am not so foolish, as to think it possible,' said Peak, half turning away.
'But that is no reason,' she pursued, 'why we should become strangers. You are still so young a man; life must be so full of possibilities for you. This year has been wasted, but when you leave Exeter' ----
An impatient movement of Godwin's checked her.
'You are going to encourage me to begin the struggle once more,' he said, bitterly. 'Where? How? It is so easy to talk of "possibilities".'
'You are not without friends--I mean friends whose sympathy is of real value to you.'
Saying this, she looked keenly at him.
'Friends,' he replied, 'who perhaps at this moment are laughing over my disgrace.'
'How do they know of -- what has happened?'
'How did your brother get his information? I didn't care to ask him. -- No, I don't even wish you to say anything about that.'
'But surely there is no reason for keeping it secret. Why may I not speak freely? Buckland told me that he had heard you spoken of at the house of people named Moxey.'
She endeavoured to understand the smile which rose to his lips.
'Now it is clear to me,' he said. 'Yes, I suppose that was inevitable, sooner or later.'
'You knew that he had become acquainted with the Moxeys?'
Her tone was more reserved than hitherto.
'Yes, I knew he had. He met Miss Moxey by chance at Budleigh Salterton, and I happened to be there -- at the Moorhouses' -- on the same day.'
Sidwell glanced at him inquiringly, and waited for something more.
'I saw Miss Moxey in private,' he added, speaking more quickly, 'and asked her to keep my secret. I ought to be ashamed to tell you this, but it is better you should know how far my humiliation has gone.'
He saw that she was moved with strong feeling. The low tone in which she answered had peculiar significance.
'Did you speak of me to Miss Moxey?'
'I must forgive you for asking that,' Peak replied, coldly. 'It may well seem to you that I have neither honour nor delicacy left.'
There had come a flush on her cheeks. For some moments she was absorbed in thought.
'It seems strange to you,' he continued at length, 'that I could ask Miss Moxey to share such a secret. But you must understand on what terms we were -- she and I. We have known each other for several years. She has a man's mind, and I have always thought of her in much the same way as of my male companions. -- Your brother has told you about her, perhaps?'
'I have met her in London.'
'Then that will make my explanation easier,' said Godwin, disregarding the anxious questions that at once suggested themselves to him. 'Well, I misled her, or tried to do so. I allowed her to suppose that I was sincere in my new undertakings, and that I didn't wish -- Oh!' he exclaimed, suddenly breaking off, 'Why need I go any further in confession? It must be as miserable for you to hear as for me to speak. Let us make an end of it. I can't understand how I have escaped detection so long.'
Remembering every detail of Buckland's story, Sidwell felt that she had possibly been unjust in representing the Moxeys as her brother's authority; in strictness, she ought to mention that a friend of theirs was the actual source of information. But she could not pursue the subject; like Godwin, she wished to put it out of her mind. What question could there be of honour or dishonour in the case of a person such as Miss Moxey, who had consented to be party to a shameful deceit? Strangely, it was a relief to her to have heard this. The moral repugnance which threatened to estrange her from Godwin, was now directed in another quarter; unduly restrained by love, it found scope under the guidance of jealousy.
'You have been trying to adapt yourself,' she said, 'to a world for which you are by nature unfitted. Your place is in the new order; by turning back to the old, you condemned yourself to a wasted life. Since we have been in London, I have come to understand better the great difference between modern intellectual life and that which we lead in these far-away corners. You must go out among your equals, go and take your part with men who are working for the future.'
Peak rose with a gesture of passionate impatience.
'What is it to me, new world or old? My world is where you are. I have no life of my own; I think only of you, live only by you.'
'If I could help you!' she replied, with emotion. 'What can I do --but be your friend at a distance? Everything else has become impossible.'
'Impossible for the present -- for a long time to come. But is there no hope for me?'
She pressed her hands together, and stood before him unable to answer.
'Remember,' he continued, 'that you are almost as much changed in my eyes as I in yours. I did not imagine that you had moved so far towards freedom of mind. If my love for you was profound and absorbing, think what it must now have become! Yours has suffered by my disgrace, but is there no hope of its reviving -- if I live worthily -- if I----?'
His voice failed.
'I have said that we can't be strangers,' Sidwell murmured brokenly. 'Wherever you go, I must hear of you.'
'Everyone about you will detest my name. You will soon wish to forget my existence.'
'If I know myself, never! -- Oh, try to find your true work! You have such abilities, powers so much greater than those of ordinary men. You will always be the same to me, and if ever circumstances'----
'You would have to give up so much, Sidwell. And there is little chance of my ever being well-to-do; poverty will always stand between us, if nothing else.'
'It must be so long before we can think of that.'
'But can I ever see you? -- No, I won't ask that. Who knows? I may have to go too far away. But I may write to you -- after a time?'
'I shall live in the hope of good news from you,' she replied, trying to smile and to speak cheerfully. 'This will always be my home. Nothing will be changed.'
'Then you don't think of me as irredeemably base?'
'If I thought you base,' Sidwell answered, in a low voice, 'I should not now be speaking with you. It is because I feel and know that you have erred only--that is what makes it impossible for me to think of your fault as outweighing the good in your nature.'
'The good? I wonder how you understand that. What is there good in me? You don't mean mere intellect?'
He waited anxiously for what she would say. A necessity for speaking out his inmost thoughts had arisen with the emotion, scarcely to be called hope, excited by Sidwell's magnanimity. Now, or never, he must stand before this woman as his very self, and be convinced that she loved him for his own sake.
'No, I don't mean intellect,' she replied, with hesitation.
'What then? Tell me of one quality in me strong enough to justify a woman's love.'
Sidwell dropped her eyes in confusion.
'I can't analyse your character -- I only know' ----
She became silent.
'To myself,' pursued Godwin, with the modulated, moving voice which always expressed his genuine feeling, 'I seem anything but lovable. I don't underrate my powers -- rather the opposite, no doubt; but what I always seem to lack is the gift of pleasing -- moral grace. My strongest emotions seem to be absorbed in revolt; for once that I feel tenderly, I have a hundred fierce, resentful, tempestuous moods. To be suave and smiling in common intercourse costs me an effort. I have to act the part, and this habit makes me sceptical, whenever I am really prompted to gentleness. I criticise myself ceaselessly; expose without mercy all those characteristics which another man would keep out of sight. Yes, and for this very reason, just because I think myself unlovable -- the gift of love means far more to me than to other men. If you could conceive the passion of gratitude which possessed me for hours after I left you the other day! You cannot!'
Sidwell regarded him fixedly.
'In comparison with this sincerity, what becomes of the pretence you blame in me? If you knew how paltry it seems -- that accusation of dishonesty! I believed the world round, and pretended to believe it flat: that's what it amounts to! Are you, on such an account as that, to consider worthless the devotion which has grown in me month by month? You -- I was persuaded -- thought the world flat, and couldn't think kindly of any man who held the other hypothesis. Very well; why not concede the trifle, and so at least give myself a chance? I did so -- that was all.'
In vain her conscience strove to assert itself. She was under the spell of a nature infinitely stronger than hers; she saw and felt as Godwin did.
'You think, Sidwell, that I stand in need of forgiveness. Then be great enough to forgive me, wholly -- once and for all. Let your love be strengthened by the trial it has passed through. That will mean that my whole life is yours, directed by the ever-present thought of your beauty, face and soul. Then there will be good in me, thanks to you. I shall no longer live a life of hypocrisy, of suppressed rage and scorn. I know how much I am asking; perhaps it means that for my sake you give up everything else that is dear to you' ----
The thought checked him. He looked at her despondently.
'You can trust me,' Sidwell answered, moving nearer to him, tears on her cheeks. 'I must hear from you, and I will write.'
'I can ask no more than that.'
He took her hands, held them for a moment, and turned away. At the door he looked round. Sidwell's head was bowed, and, on her raising it, he saw that she was blinded with tears.
So he went forth.
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