Born in Exile
Part the Sixth[I] [II] [III] [IV]
For several days after the scene in which Mr Malkin unconsciously played an important part, Marcella seemed to be ill. She appeared at meals, but neither ate nor conversed. Christian had never known her so sullen and nervously irritable; he did not venture to utter Peak's name. Upon seclusion followed restless activity. Marcella was rarely at home between breakfast and dinner-time, and her brother learnt with satisfaction that she went much among her acquaintances. Late one evening, when he had just returned from he knew not where, Christian tried to put an end to the unnatural constraint between them. After talking cheerfully for a few minutes, he risked the question:
'Have you seen anything of the Warricombes?'
She replied with a cold negative.
'Nor heard anything?'
'No. Have you?'
'Nothing at all. I have seen Earwaker. Malkin had told him about what happened here the other day.'
'But he had no news. -- Of Peak, I mean.'
Marcella smiled, as if the situation amused her; but she would not discuss it. Christian began to hope that she was training herself to a wholesome indifference.
A month of the new year went by, and Peak seemed to be forgotten. Marcella had returned to her studious habits, was fenced around with books, seldom left the house. Another month and the brother and sister were living very much in the old way, seeing few people, conversing only of intellectual things. But Christian concealed an expectation which enabled him to pass hours of retirement in the completest idleness. Since the death of her husband, Mrs Palmer had been living abroad. Before the end of March, as he had been careful to discover, she would be back in London, at the house in Sussex Square. By that time he might venture, without indelicacy, to call upon her. And after the first interview ----
The day came, when, ill with agitation, he set forth to pay this call. For two or three nights he had scarcely closed his eyes; he looked ghastly. The weather was execrable, and on that very account he made choice of this afternoon, hoping that he might find his widowed Laura alone. Between ringing the bell and the opening of the door, he could hardly support himself. He asked for Mrs Palmer in a gasping voice which caused the servant to look at him with surprise.
The lady was at home. At the drawing-room door, before his name could be announced, he caught the unwelcome sound of voices in lively conversation. It seemed to him that a score of persons were assembled. In reality there were six, three of them callers.
Mrs Palmer met him with the friendliest welcome. A stranger would have thought her pretty, but by no means impressive. She was short, anything but meagre, fair-haired, brisk of movement, idly vivacious in look and tone. The mourning she wore imposed no restraint upon her humour, which at present was not far from gay.
'Is it really Mr Moxey?' she exclaimed. 'Why, I had all but forgotten you, and positively it is your own fault! It must be a year or more since you came to see me. No? Eight months? -- But I have been through so much trouble, you know.' She sighed mechanically. 'I thought of you one day at Bordighera, when we were looking at some funny little sea-creatures -- the kind of thing you used to know all about. How is your sister?'
A chill struck upon his heart. Assuredly he had no wish to find Constance sunk in the semblance of dolour; such hypocrisy would have pained him. But her sprightliness was a shock. Though months had passed since Mr Palmer's decease, a decent gravity would more have become her condition. He could reply only in broken phrases, and it was a relief to him when the widow, as if tiring of his awkwardness, turned her attention elsewhere.
He was at length able to survey the company. Two ladies in mourning he faintly recognised, the one a sister of Mr Palmer's, comely but of dull aspect; the other a niece, whose laugh was too frequent even had it been more musical, and who talked of athletic sports with a young man evidently better fitted to excel in that kind of thing than in any pursuit demanding intelligence. This gentleman Christian had never met. The two other callers, a grey-headed, military-looking person, and a lady, possibly his wife, were equally strangers to him.
The drawing-room was much changed in appearance since Christian's last visit. There was more display, a richer profusion of ornaments not in the best taste. The old pictures had given place to showily-framed daubs of the most popular school. On a little table at his elbow, he remarked the photograph of a jockey who was just then engrossing public affection. What did all this mean? Formerly, he had attributed every graceful feature of the room to Constance's choice. He had imagined that to her Mr Palmer was indebted for guidance on points of aesthetic propriety. Could it be that ----?
He caught a glance which she cast in his direction, and instantly forgot the troublesome problem. How dull of him to misunderstand her! Her sportiveness had a double significance. It was the expression of a hope which would not be subdued, and at the same time a means of disguising the tender interest with which she regarded him. If she had been blithe before his appearance, how could she suddenly change her demeanour as soon as he entered? It would have challenged suspicion and remark. For the same reason she affected to have all but forgotten him. Of course! how could he have failed to see that? 'I thought of you one day at Bordighera' -- was not that the best possible way of making known to him that he had never been out of her mind?
Sweet, noble, long-suffering Constance!
He took a place by her sister, and began to talk of he knew not what, for all his attention was given to the sound of Constance's voice.
'Yes,' she was saying to the man of military appearance, 'it's very early to come back to London, but I did get so tired of those foreign places.'
(In other words, of being far from her Christian -- thus he interpreted.)
'No, we didn't make a single pleasant acquaintance. A shockingly tiresome lot of people wherever we went.'
(In comparison with the faithful lover, who waited, waited.)
'Foreigners are so stupid -- don't you think so? Why should they always expect you to speak their language? -- Oh, of course I speak French; but it is such a disagreeable language -- don't you think so?'
(Compared with the accents of English devotion, of course.)
'Do you go in for cycling, Mr Moxey?' inquired Mrs Palmer's laughing niece, from a little distance.
'For cycling?' With a great effort he recovered himself and grasped the meaning of the words. 'No, I -- I'm sorry to say I don't. Capital exercise!'
'Mr Dwight has just been telling me such an awfully good story about a friend of his. Do tell it again, Mr Dwight! It'll make you laugh no end, Mr Moxey.'
The young man appealed to was ready enough to repeat his anecdote, which had to do with a bold cyclist, who, after dining more than well, rode his machine down a steep hill and escaped destruction only by miracle. Christian laughed desperately, and declared that he had never heard anything so good.
But the tension of his nerves was unendurable. Five minutes more of anguish, and he sprang up like an automaton.
'Must you really go, Mr Moxey?' said Constance, with a manner which of course was intended to veil her emotion. 'Please don't be another year before you let us see you again.'
Blessings on her tender heart! What more could she have said, in the presence of all those people? He walked all the way to Notting Hill through a pelting rain, his passion aglow.
Impossible to be silent longer concerning the brilliant future. Arrived at home, he flung off hat and coat, and went straight to the drawing-room, hoping to find Marcella alone. To his annoyance, a stranger was sitting there in conversation, a very simply dressed lady, who, as he entered, looked at him with a grave smile and stood up. He thought he had never seen her before.
Marcella wore a singular expression; there was a moment of silence, for Christian decidedly embarrassing, since it seemed to be expected that he should greet the stranger.
'Don't you remember Janet?' said his sister.
'Janet?' He felt his face flush. 'You don't mean to say --? But how you have altered! And yet, no; really, you haven't. It's only my stupidity.' He grasped her hand, and with a feeling of genuine pleasure, despite awkward reminiscences.
'One does alter in eleven years,' said Janet Moxey, in a very pleasant, natural voice -- a voice of habitual self-command, conveying the idea of a highly cultivated mind, and many other agreeable things.
'Eleven years? Yes, yes! How very glad I am to see you! And I'm sure Marcella was. How very kind of you to call on us!'
Janet was as far as ever from looking handsome or pretty, but it must have been a dullard who proclaimed her face unpleasing. She had eyes of remarkable intelligence, something like Marcella's but milder, more benevolent. Her lips were softly firm; they would not readily part in laughter; their frequent smile meant more than that of the woman who sets herself to be engaging.
'I am on my way home,' she said, 'from a holiday in the South, -- an enforced holiday, I'm sorry to say.'
'You have been ill?'
'Overworked a little. I am practising medicine in Kingsmill.'
Christian did not disguise his astonishment.
'You don't remember that I always had scientific tastes?'
If it was a reproach, none could have been more gently administered.
'Of course -- of course I do! Your botany, your skeletons of birds and cats and mice -- of course! But where did you study?'
'In London. The Women's Medical School. I have been in practice for nearly four years.'
'And have overworked yourself. -- But why are we standing? Let us sit down and talk. How is your father?'
Marcella was watching her brother closely, and with a curious smile.
Janet remained for another hour. No reference was made to the long rupture of intercourse between her family and these relatives. Christian learnt that his uncle was still hale, and that Janet's four sisters all lived, obviously unmarried. To-day he was disposed to be almost affectionate with anyone who showed him a friendly face: he expressed grief that his cousin must leave for Twybridge early in the morning.
'Whenever you pass through the Midlands,' was Janet's indirect reply, addressed to Marcella, 'try to stop at Kingsmill.'
And a few minutes after that she took her leave. There lingered behind her that peculiar fragrance of modern womanhood, refreshing, inspiriting, which is so entirely different from the merely feminine perfume, however exquisite.
'What a surprising visit!' was Christian's exclamation, when he and his sister were alone. 'How did she find us?'
'Directory, I suppose.'
'A lady doctor!' he mused.
'And a very capable one, I fancy,' said Marcella. 'We had nearly an hour's talk before you came. But she won't be able to stand the work. There'll be another breakdown before long.'
'Has she a large practice, then?'
'Not very large, perhaps; but she studies as well. I never dreamt of Janet becoming so interesting a person.'
Christian had to postpone till after dinner the talk he purposed about Mrs Palmer. When that time came, he was no longer disposed for sentimental confessions; it would be better to wait until he could announce a settled project of marriage. Through the evening, his sister recurred to the subject of Janet with curious frequency, and on the following day her interest had suffered no diminution. Christian had always taken for granted that she understood the grounds of the breach between him and his uncle; without ever unbosoming himself, he had occasionally, in his softer moments, alluded to the awkward subject in language which he thought easy enough to interpret. Now at length, in reply to some remark of Marcella's, he said with significant accent:
'Janet was very friendly to me.'
'She has studied science for ten years,' was his sister's comment.
'Yes, and can forgive a boy's absurdities.'
'Easier to forgive, certainly, than those of a man,' said Marcella, with a curl of the lip.
Christian became silent, and went thoughtfully away.
A week later, he was again in Mrs Palmer's drawing-room, where again he met an assemblage of people such as seemed to profane this sanctuary. To be sure -- he said to himself -- Constance could not at once get rid of the acquaintances forced upon her by her husband; little by little she would free herself. It was a pity that her sister and her niece -- persons anything but intelligent and refined -- should be permanent members of her household; for their sake, no doubt, she felt constrained to welcome men and women for whose society she herself had little taste. But when the year of her widowhood was past ----Petrarch's Laura was the mother of eleven children; Constance had had only three, and one of these was dead. The remaining two, Christian now learnt, lived with a governess in a little house at Bournemouth, which Mrs Palmer had taken for that purpose.
'I'm going down to see them to-morrow,' she informed Christian, 'and I shall stay there over the next day. It's so quiet and restful.'
These words kept repeating themselves to Christian's ear, as he went home, and all through the evening. Were they not an invitation? Down there at Bournemouth, Constance would be alone the day after to-morrow. 'It is so quiet and restful;' that was to say, no idle callers would break upon her retirement; she would be able to welcome a friend, and talk reposefully with him. Surely she must have meant that; for she spoke with a peculiar intonation -- a look ----
By the second morning he had worked himself up to a persuasion that yonder by the seaside Constance was expecting him. To miss the opportunity would be to prove himself dull of apprehension, a laggard in love. With trembling hands, he hurried through his toilet and made haste downstairs to examine a railway time-table. He found it was possible to reach Bournemouth by about two o'clock, a very convenient hour; it would allow him to take refreshment, and walk to the house shortly after three.
His conviction strong as ever, he came to the journey's end, and in due course discovered the pleasant little house of which Constance had spoken. At the door, his heart failed him; but retreat could not now be thought of. Yes, Mrs Palmer was at home. The servant led him into a sitting-room on the ground floor, took his name, and left him.
It was nearly ten minutes before Constance appeared. On her face he read a frank surprise.
'I happened to -- to be down here; couldn't resist the temptation' ----
'Delighted to see you, Mr Moxey. But how did you know I was here?'
He gazed at her.
'You -- don't you remember? The day before yesterday -- in Sussex Square -- you mentioned' ----
'Oh, did I?' She laughed. 'I had quite forgotten.'
Christian sank upon his chair. He tried to convince himself that she was playing a part; perhaps she thought that she had been premature in revealing her wish to talk with him.
Mrs Palmer was good-natured. This call evidently puzzled her, but she did not stint her hospitality. When Christian asked after the children, they were summoned; two little girls daintily dressed, pretty, affectionate with their mother. The sight of them tortured Christian, and he sighed deeply with relief when they left the room. Constance appeared rather absent; her quick glance at him signified something, but he could not determine what. In agony of constraint, he rose as if to go.
'Oh, you will have a cup of tea with me,' said Mrs Palmer. 'It will be brought in a few minutes.'
Then she really wished him to stop. Was he not behaving like an obtuse creature? Why, everything was planned to encourage him.
He talked recklessly of this and that, and got round to the years long gone by. When the tea came, he was reviving memories of occasions on which he and she had met as young people. Constance laughed merrily, declared she could hardly remember.
'Oh, what a time ago! -- But I was quite a child.'
'No -- indeed, no! You were a young lady, and a brilliant one.'
The tea seemed to intoxicate him. He noticed again that Constance glanced at him significantly. How good of her to allow him this delicious afternoon!
'Mr Moxey,' she said, after meditating a little, 'why haven't you married? I should have thought you would have married long ago.'
He was stricken dumb. Her jerky laugh came as a shock upon his hearing.
'What is there astonishing in the idea?'
'But -- I -- how can I answer you?'
The pretty, characterless face betrayed some unusual feeling. She looked at him furtively; seemed to suppress a tendency to laugh.
'I mustn't pry into secrets,' she simpered.
'But there is no secret!' Christian panted, laying down his teacup for fear he should drop it. 'Whom should I -- could I have married?'
Constance also put aside her cup. She was bewildered, and just a little abashed. With courage which came he knew not whence, Christian bent forward and continued speaking:
'Whom could I marry after that day when I met you in the little drawing-room at the Robinsons'?'
She stared in genuine astonishment, then was embarrassed.
'You cannot -- cannot have forgotten ----?'
'You surely don't mean to say, Mr Moxey, that you have remembered? Oh, I'm afraid I was a shocking flirt in those days!'
'But I mean after your marriage -- when I found you in tears' ----
'Please, please don't remind me!' she exclaimed, giggling nervously. 'Oh how silly! -- of me, I mean. To think that -- but you are making fun of me, Mr Moxey?'
Christian rose and went to the window. He was not only shaken by his tender emotions -- something very like repugnance had begun to affect him. If Constance were feigning, it was in very bad taste; if she spoke with sincerity -- what a woman had he worshipped! It did not occur to him to lay the fault upon his own absurd romanticism. After eleven years' persistence in one point of view, he could not suddenly see the affair with the eyes of common sense.
He turned and approached her again.
'Do you not know, then,' he asked, with quiet dignity, 'that ever since the day I speak of, I have devoted my life to the love I then felt? All these years, have you not understood me?'
Mrs Palmer was quite unable to grasp ideas such as these. Neither her reading nor her experience prepared her to understand what Christian meant. Courtship of a married woman was intelligible enough to her; but a love that feared to soil itself, a devotion from afar, encouraged by only the faintest hope of reward other than the most insubstantial -- of that she had as little conception as any woman among the wealthy vulgar.
'Do you really mean, Mr Moxey, that you -- have kept unmarried for my sake?'
'You don't know that?' he asked, hoarsely.
'How could I? How was I to imagine such a thing? Really, was it proper? How could you expect me, Mr Moxey ----?'
For a moment she looked offended. But her real feelings were astonishment and amusement, not unmingled with an idle gratification.
'I must ask you to pardon me,' said Christian, whose forehead gleamed with moisture.
'No, don't say that. I am really so sorry! What an odd mistake!'
'And I have hoped in vain -- since you were free ----?'
'Oh, you mustn't say such things! I shall never dream of marrying again -- never!'
There was a matter-of-fact vigour in the assertion which proved that Mrs Palmer spoke her genuine thought. The tone could not be interpreted as devotion to her husband's memory; it meant, plainly and simply, that she had had enough of marriage, and delighted in her freedom.
Christian could not say another word. Disillusion was complete. The voice, the face, were those of as unspiritual a woman as he could easily have met with, and his life's story was that of a fool.
He took his hat, held out his hand, with 'Good-bye, Mrs Palmer.' The cold politeness left her no choice but again to look offended, and with merely a motion of the head she replied, 'Good-bye, Mr Moxey.'
And therewith permitted him to leave the house.
On calling at Earwaker's chambers one February evening, Malkin became aware, from the very threshold of the outer door, that the domicile was not as he had known it. With the familiar fragrance of Earwaker's special 'mixture' blended a suggestion of new upholstery. The little vestibule had somehow put off its dinginess, and an unwontedly brilliant light from the sitting-room revealed changes of the interior which the visitor remarked with frank astonishment.
'What the deuce! Has it happened at last? Are you going to be married?' he cried, staring about him at unrecognised chairs, tables, and bookcases, at whitened ceiling and pleasantly papered walls, at pictures and ornaments which he knew not.
The journalist shook his head, and smiled contentedly.
'An idea that came to me all at once. My editorship seemed to inspire it.'
After a year of waiting upon Providence, Earwaker had received the offer of a substantial appointment much more to his taste than those he had previously held. He was now literary editor of a weekly review which made no kind of appeal to the untaught multitude.
'I have decided to dwell here for the rest of my life,' he added, looking round the walls. 'One must have a homestead, and this shall be mine; here I have set up my penates. It's a portion of space, you know; and what more can be said of Longleat or Chatsworth? A house I shall never want, because I shall never have a wife. And on the whole I prefer this situation to any other. I am well within reach of everything urban that I care about, and as for the country, that is too good to be put to common use; let it be kept for holiday. There's an atmosphere in the old Inns that pleases me. The new flats are insufferable. How can one live sandwiched between a music-hall singer and a female politician? For lodgings of any kind no sane man had ever a word of approval. Reflecting on all these things, I have established myself in perpetuity.'
'Just what I can't do,' exclaimed Malkin, flinging himself into a broad, deep, leather-covered chair. 'Yet I have leanings that way. Only a few days ago I sat for a whole evening with the map of England open before me, wondering where would be the best place to settle down -- a few years hence, I mean, you know; when Bella is old enough. -- That reminds me. Next Sunday is her birthday, and do you know what? I wish you'd go down to Wrotham with me.'
'Many thanks, but I think I had better not.'
'Oh, but do! I want you to see how Bella is getting on. She's grown wonderfully since you saw her in Paris -- an inch taller, I should think. I don't go down there very often, you know, so I notice these changes. Really, I think no one could be more discreet than I am, under the circumstances. A friend of the family; that's all. Just dropping in for a casual cup of tea now and then. Sunday will be a special occasion, of course. I say, what are your views about early marriage? Do you think seventeen too young?'
'I should think seven-and-twenty much better.'
Malkin broke into fretfulness.
'Let me tell you, Earwaker, I don't like the way you habitually speak of this project of mine. Plainly, I don't like it. It's a very serious matter indeed -- eh? What? Why are you smiling?'
'I agree with you as to its seriousness.'
'Yes, yes; but in a very cynical and offensive way. It makes me confoundedly uncomfortable, let me tell you. I don't think that's very friendly on your part. And the fact is, if it goes on I'm very much afraid we shan't see so much of each other as we have done. I like you, Earwaker, and I respect you; I think you know that. But occasionally you seem to have too little regard for one's feelings. No, I don't feel able to pass it over with a joke. -- There! The deuce take it! I've bitten off the end of my pipe.'
He spat out a piece of amber, and looked ruefully at the broken stem.
'Take a cigar,' said Earwaker, fetching a box from a cupboard.
'I don't mind. -- Well -- what was I saying? Oh yes; I was quarrelling with you. Now, look here, what fault have you to find with Bella Jacox?'
'None whatever. She seemed to me a very amiable child.'
'Child! Pooh! pshaw! And fifteen next Sunday, I tell you. She's a young lady, and to tell you the confounded plain truth, I'm in love with her. I am, and there's nothing to be ashamed of. If you smile, we shall quarrel. I warn you, Earwaker, we shall quarrel.'
The journalist, instead of smiling, gave forth his deepest laugh. Malkin turned very red, scowled, and threw his cigar aside.
'You really wish me to go on Sunday?' Earwaker asked, in a pleasant voice.
The other's countenance immediately cleared.
'I shall take it as a great kindness. Mrs Jacox will be delighted. Meet me at Holborn Viaduct at 1.25. No, to make sure I'll come here at one o'clock.'
In a few minutes he was chatting as unconcernedly as ever.
'Talking of settling down, my brother Tom and his wife are on the point of going to New Zealand. Necessity of business; may be out there for the rest of their lives. Do you know that I shall think very seriously of following them some day? With Bella, you know. The fact of the matter is, I don't believe I could ever make a solid home in England. Why, I can't quite say; partly, I suppose, because I have nothing to do. Now there's a good deal to be said for going out to the colonies. A man feels that he is helping the spread of civilisation; and that's something, you know. I should compare myself with the Greek and Roman colonists -- something inspiriting in that thought -- what? Why shouldn't I found a respectable newspaper, for instance? Yes, I shall think very seriously of this.'
'You wouldn't care to run over with your relatives, just to have a look?'
'It occurred to me,' Malkin replied, thoughtfully. 'But they sail in ten days, and -- well, I'm afraid I couldn't get ready in time. And then I've promised to look after some little affairs for Mrs Jacox -- some trifling money matters. But later in the year -- who knows?'
Earwaker half repented of his promise to visit the Jacox household, but there was no possibility of excusing himself. So on Sunday he journeyed with his friend down to Wrotham. Mrs Jacox and her children were very comfortably established in a small new house. When the companions entered they found the mother alone in her sitting-room, and she received them with an effusiveness very distasteful to Earwaker.
'Now you shouldn't!' was her first exclamation to Malkin. 'Indeed you shouldn't! It's really very naughty of you. O Mr Earwaker! Who ever took so much pleasure in doing kindnesses? Do look at this beautiful book that Mr Malkin has sent as a present to my little Bella. O Mr Earwaker!'
The journalist was at once struck with her tone and manner as she addressed Malkin. He remarked that phrase, 'my little Bella', and it occurred to him that Mrs Jacox had been growing younger since he made her acquaintance on the towers of Notre Dame. When the girls presented themselves, they also appeared to him more juvenile; Bella, in particular, was dressed with an exaggeration of childishness decidedly not becoming. One had but to look into her face to see that she answered perfectly to Malkin's description; she was a young lady, and no child. A very pretty young lady, moreover; given to colouring, but with no silly simper; intelligent about the eyes and lips; modest, in a natural and sweet way. He conversed with her, and in doing so was disagreeably affected by certain glances she occasionally cast towards her mother. One would have said that she feared censure, though it was hard to see why.
On the return journey Earwaker made known some of his impressions, though not all.
'I like the girls,' he said, 'Bella especially. But I can't say much good of their mother.'
They were opposite each other in the railway carriage. Malkin leaned forward with earnest, anxious face.
'That's my own trouble,' he whispered. 'I'm confoundedly uneasy about it. I don't think she's bringing them up at all in a proper way. Earwaker, I would pay down five thousand pounds for the possibility of taking Bella away altogether.'
The other mused.
'But, mind you,' pursued Malkin, 'she's not a bad woman. By no means! Thoroughly good-hearted I'm convinced; only a little weak here.' He tapped his forehead. 'I respect her, for all she has suffered, and her way of going through it. But she isn't the ideal mother, you know.'
On his way home, Malkin turned into his friend's chambers 'for five minutes'. At two in the morning he was still there, and his talk in the meanwhile had been of nothing but schemes for protecting Bella against her mother's more objectionable influences. On taking leave, he asked:
'Any news of Peak yet?'
'None. I haven't seen Moxey for a long time.'
'Do you think Peak will look you up again, if he's in London?'
'No, I think he'll keep away. And I half hope he will; I shouldn't quite know how to behave. Ten to one he's in London now. I suppose he couldn't stay at Exeter. But he may have left England.'
They parted, and for a week did not see each other. Then, on Monday evening, when Earwaker was very busy with a mass of manuscript, the well-known knock sounded from the passage, and Malkin received admission. The look he wore was appalling, a look such as only some fearful catastrophe could warrant.
'Are you busy?' he asked, in a voice very unlike his own.
Earwaker could not doubt that the trouble was this time serious. He abandoned his work, and gave himself wholly to his friend's service.
'An awful thing has happened,' Malkin began. 'How the deuce shall I tell you? Oh, the ass I have made of myself! But I couldn't help it; there seemed no way out of it.'
'It was last night, but I couldn't come to you till now. By Jove! I veritably thought of sending you a note, and then killing myself. Early this morning I was within an ace of suicide. Believe me, old friend. This is no farce.'
'Yes, yes; but I can't tell you all at once. Sure you're not busy? I know I pester you. I was down at Wrotham yesterday. I hadn't meant to go, but the temptation was too strong. I got there at five o'clock, and found that the girls were gone to have tea with some young friends. Well, I wasn't altogether sorry; it was a good opportunity for a little talk with their mother. And I had the talk. But, oh, ass that I was!'
He smote the side of his head savagely.
'Can you guess, Earwaker? Can you give a shot at what happened?'
'Perhaps I might,' replied the other, gravely.
'That woman asked you to marry her.'
Malkin leapt from his chair, and sank back again.
'It came to that. Yes, upon my word, it came to that. She said she had fallen in love with me -- that was the long and short of it. And I had never said a word that could suggest -- Oh, confound it! What a frightful scene it was!'
'You took a final leave of her?'
Malkin stared with eyes of anguish into his friend's face, and at length whispered thickly:
'I said I would!'
'What? Take leave?'
Earwaker had much ado to check an impatiently remonstrant laugh. He paused awhile, then began his expostulation, at first treating the affair as too absurd for grave argument.
'My boy,' he concluded, 'you have got into a preposterous scrape, and I see only one way out of it. You must flee. When does your brother start for the Antipodes?'
'Then you go with him; there's an end of it.'
Malkin listened with the blank, despairing look of a man condemned to death.
'Do you hear me?' urged the other. 'Go home and pack. On Thursday I'll see you off.'
'I can't bring myself to that,' came in a groan from Malkin. 'I've never yet done anything to be seriously ashamed of, and I can't run away after promising marriage. It would weigh upon me for the rest of my life.'
'Humbug! Would it weigh upon you less to marry the mother, and all the time be in love with the daughter? To my mind, there's something peculiarly loathsome in the suggestion.'
'But, look here; Bella is very young, really very young indeed. It's possible that I have deluded myself. Perhaps I don't really care for her in the way I imagined. It's more than likely that I might be content to regard her with fatherly affection.'
'Even supposing that, with what sort of affection do you regard Mrs Jacox?'
Malkin writhed on his chair before replying.
'You mustn't misjudge her!' he exclaimed. 'She is no heartless schemer. The poor thing almost cried her eyes out. It was a frightful scene. She reproached herself bitterly. What could I do? I have a tenderness for her, there's no denying that. She has been so vilely used, and has borne it all so patiently. How abominable it would be if I dealt her another blow!'
The journalist raised his eyebrows, and uttered inarticulate sounds.
'Was anything said about Bella?' he asked, abruptly.
'Not a word. I'm convinced she doesn't suspect that I thought of Bella like that. The fact is, I have misled her. She thought all along that my chief interest was in her.'
'Indeed? Then what was the ground of her self-reproach that you speak of?'
'How defective you are in the appreciation of delicate feeling!' cried Malkin frantically, starting up and rushing about the room. 'She reproached herself for having permitted me to get entangled with a widow older than myself, and the mother of two children. What could be simpler?'
Earwaker began to appreciate the dangers of the situation. If he insisted upon his view of Mrs Jacox's behaviour (though it was not the harshest that the circumstances suggested, for he was disposed to believe that the widow had really lost her heart to her kind, eccentric champion), the result would probably be to confirm Malkin in his resolution of self-sacrifice. The man must be saved, if possible, from such calamity, and this would not be effected by merely demonstrating that he was on the highroad to ruin. It was necessary to try another tack.
'It seems to me, Malkin,' he resumed, gravely, 'that it is you who are deficient in right feeling. In offering to marry this poor woman, you did her the gravest wrong.'
'You know that it is impossible for you to love her. You know that you will repent, and that she will be aware of it. You are not the kind of man to conceal your emotions. Bella will grow up, and -- well, the state of things won't tend to domestic felicity. For Mrs Jacox's own sake, it is your duty to put an end to this folly before it has gone too far.'
The other gave earnest ear, but with no sign of shaken conviction.
'Yes,' he said. 'I know this is one way of looking at it. But it assumes that a man can't control himself, that his sense of honour isn't t strong enough to keep him in the right way. I don't think you quite understand me. I am not a passionate man; the proof is that I have never fallen in love since I was sixteen. I think a great deal of domestic peace, a good deal more than of romantic enthusiasm. If I marry Mrs Jacox, I shall make her a good and faithful husband, -- so much I can safely say of myself.'
He waited, but Earwaker was not ready with a rejoinder.
'And there's another point. I have always admitted the defect of my character -- an inability to settle down. Now, if I run away to New Zealand, with the sense of having dishonoured myself, I shall be a mere Wandering Jew for the rest of my life. All hope of redemption will be over. Of the two courses now open to me, that of marriage with Mrs Jacox is decidedly the less disadvantageous. Granting that I have made a fool of myself, I must abide by the result, and make the best of it. And the plain fact is, I can't treat her so disgracefully; I can't burden my conscience in this way. I believe it would end in suicide; I do, indeed.'
'This sounds all very well, but it is weakness and selfishness.'
'How can you say so?'
'There's no proving to so short-sighted a man the result of his mistaken course. I've a good mind to let you have your way just for the satisfaction of saying afterwards, "Didn't I tell you so?" You propose to behave with abominable injustice to two people, putting yourself aside. Doesn't it occur to you that Bella may already look upon you as her future husband? Haven't you done your best to plant that idea in her mind?'
Malkin started, but quickly recovered himself.
'No, I haven't! I have behaved with the utmost discretion. Bella thinks of me only as of a friend much older than herself.'
'I don't believe it!'
'Nonsense, Earwaker! A child of fifteen!'
'The other day you had quite a different view, and after seeing her again I agreed with you. She is a young girl, and if not already in love with you, is on the way to be so.'
'That will come to nothing when she hears that I am going to be her step-father.'
'Far more likely to develop into a grief that will waste the best part of her lifetime. She will be shocked and made miserable. But do as you like. I am tired of arguing.'
Earwaker affected to abandon the matter in disgust. For several minutes there was silence, then a low voice sounded from the corner where Malkin stood leaning.
'So it is your honest belief that Bella has begun to think of me in that way?'
'I am convinced of it.'
'But if I run away, I shall never see her again.'
'Why not? She won't run away. Come back when things have squared themselves. Write to Mrs Jacox from the ends of the earth, and let her understand that there is no possibility of your marrying her.'
'Tell her about Bella, you mean?'
'No, that's just what I don't mean. Avoid any mention of the girl. Come back when she is seventeen, and, if she is willing, carry her off to be happy ever after.'
'But she may have fallen in love with someone else.'
'I think not. You must risk it, at all events.'
'Look here!' Malkin came forward eagerly. 'I'll write to Mrs Jacox to-night, and make a full confession. I'll tell her exactly how the case stands. She's a good woman; she'll gladly sacrifice herself for the sake of her daughter.'
Earwaker was firm in resistance. He had no faith whatever in the widow's capacity for self-immolation, and foresaw that his friend would be drawn into another 'frightful scene', resulting probably in a marriage as soon as the licence could be obtained.
'When are you to see her again?' he inquired.
'Will you undertake to do nothing whatever till Wednesday morning, and then to have another talk with me? I'll come and see you about ten o'clock.'
In the end Malkin was constrained into making this engagement, and not long after midnight the journalist managed to get rid of him.
On Tuesday afternoon arrived a distracted note. 'I shall keep my promise, and I won't try to see you till you come here tomorrow. But I am sore beset. I have received three letters from Mrs Jacox, all long and horribly pathetic. She seems to have a presentiment that I shall forsake her. What a beast I shall be if I do! Tom comes here to-night, and I think I shall tell him all.'
The last sentence was a relief to the reader; he knew nothing of Mr Thomas Malkin, but there was a fair presumption that this gentleman would not see his brother bent on making such a notable fool of himself without vigorous protest.
At the appointed hour next morning, Earwaker reached his friend's lodgings, which were now at Kilburn. On entering the room he saw, not the familiar figure, but a solid, dark-faced, black-whiskered man, whom a faint resemblance enabled him to identify as Malkin the younger.
'I was expecting you,' said Thomas, as they shook hands. 'My brother is completely floored. When I got here an hour ago, I insisted on his lying down, and now I think he's asleep. If you don't mind, we'll let him rest for a little. I believe he has hardly closed his eyes since this unfortunate affair happened.'
'It rejoiced me to hear that he was going to ask your advice. How do matters stand?'
'You know Mrs Jacox?'
Thomas was obviously a man of discretion, but less intellectual than his brother; he spoke like one who is accustomed to the management of affairs. At first he was inclined to a polite reserve, but Earwaker's conversation speedily put him more at ease.
'I have quite made up my mind,' he said presently, 'that we must take him away with us to-morrow. The voyage will bring him to his senses.'
'Of course he resists?'
'Yes, but if you will give me your help, I think we can manage him. He is not very strong-willed. In a spasmodic way he can defy everyone, but the steady pressure of common sense will prevail with him, I think.'
They had talked for half-an-hour, when the door opened and the object of their benevolent cares stood before them. He was clad in a dressing-gown, and his disordered hair heightened the look of illness which his features presented.
'Why didn't you call me?' he asked his brother, irritably. 'Earwaker, I beg a thousand pardons! I'm not very well; I've overslept myself.'
'Yes, yes; come and sit down.'
Thomas made an offer to leave them.
'Don't go,' said Malkin. 'No need whatever. You know why Earwaker has been so kind as to come here. We may as well talk it over together.'
He sat on the table, swinging a tassel of his dressing-gown round and round.
'Now, what do you really think of doing?' asked the journalist, in a kind voice.
'I don't know. I absolutely do not know. I'm unutterably wretched.'
'In that case, will you let your brother and me decide for you? We have no desire but for your good, and we are perfectly at one in our judgment.'
'Of course I know what you will propose!' cried the other, excitedly. 'From the prudential point of view, you are right, I have no doubt. But how can you protect me against remorse? If you had received letters such as these three,' he pulled them out of a pocket, 'you would be as miserable as I am. If I don't keep my promise, I shall never know another moment of peace.'
'You certainly won't if you do keep it,' remarked Thomas.
'No,' added Earwaker, 'and one if not two other persons will be put into the same case. Whereas by boldly facing these reproaches of conscience, you do a great kindness to the others.'
'If only you could assure me of that!'
'I can assure you. That is to say, I can give it as my unassailable conviction.'
And Earwaker once more enlarged upon the theme, stating it from every point of view that served his purpose.
'You're making a mountain out of a mole-heap,' was the lady will get over her sorrows quickly enough, and some day she'll confirmatory remark that came from Thomas. 'This respectable be only too glad to have you for a son-in-law, if Miss Bella still pleases you.'
'It's only right,' urged Earwaker, in pursuance of his subtler intention, 'that you should bear the worst of the suffering, for the trouble has come out of your own thoughtlessness. You are fond of saying that you have behaved with the utmost discretion; so far from that you have been outrageously indiscreet. I foresaw that something of this kind might come to pass'----
'Then why the devil didn't you warn me?' shouted Malkin, in an agony of nervous strain.
'It would have been useless. In fact, I foresaw it too late.'
The discussion continued for an hour. By careful insistence on the idea of self-sacrifice, Earwaker by degrees demolished the arguments his friend kept putting forward. Thomas, who had gone impatiently to the window, turned round with words that were meant to be final.
'It's quite decided. You begin your preparations at once, and to-morrow morning you go on board with us.'
'But if I don't go to Wrotham this afternoon, she'll be here either to-night or the first thing to-morrow. I'm sure of it!'
'By four or five o'clock,' said Earwaker, 'you can have broken up the camp. You've often done it at shorter notice. Go to an hotel for the night.'
'I must write to the poor woman.'
'Do as you like about that.'
'Who is to help her, if she gets into difficulties -- as she's always doing? Who is to advise her about Bella's education? Who is to pay -- I mean, who will see to ----? Oh, confound it!'
The listeners glanced at each other.
'Are her affairs in order?' asked Earwaker. 'Has she a sufficient income?'
'For ordinary needs, quite sufficient. But' ----
'Then you needn't be in the least uneasy. Let her know where you are, when the equator is between you. Watch over her interests from a distance, if you like. I can as good as promise you that Bella will wait hopefully to see her friend again.'
Malkin succumbed to argument and exhaustion. Facing Earwaker with a look of pathetic appeal, he asked hoarsely:
'Will you stand by me till it's over? Have you time?'
'I can give you till five o'clock.'
'Then I'll go and dress. Ring the bell, Tom, and ask them to bring up some beer.'
Before three had struck, the arrangements for flight were completed. A heavily-laden cab bore away Malkin's personal property; within sat the unhappy man and his faithful friend.
The next morning Earwaker went down to Tilbury, and said farewell to the travellers on board the steamship Orient. Mrs Thomas had already taken her brother-in-law under her special care.
'It's only three children to look after, instead of two,' she remarked, in a laughing aside to the journalist. 'How grateful he will be to you in a few days! And I'm sure we are already.'
Malkin's eyes were no longer quite lustreless. At the last moment he talked with animation of 'two years hence', and there was vigour in the waving of his hand as the vessel started seaward.
Peak lost no time in leaving Exeter. To lighten his baggage, and to get rid of possessions to which hateful memories attached, he sold all his books that had any bearing on theology. The incomplete translation of Bibel und Natur he committed to the flames in Mrs Roots's kitchen, scattering its black remnants with savage thrusts of the poker. Whilst engaged in packing, he debated with himself whether or not he should take leave of the few acquaintances to whom he was indebted for hospitality and other kindness. The question was: Had Buckland Warricombe already warned these people against him? Probably it had seemed to Buckland the wiser course to be content with driving the hypocrite away; and, if this were so, regard for the future dictated a retirement from Exeter which should in no way resemble secret flight. Sidwell's influence with her parents would perhaps withhold them from making his disgrace known, and in a few years he might be glad that he had behaved with all possible prudence. In the end, he decided to write to Mr Lilywhite, saying that he was obliged to go away at a moment's notice, and that he feared it would be necessary altogether to change the scheme of life which he had had in view. This was the best way. From the Lilywhites, other people would hear of him, and perchance their conjectures would be charitable.
Without much hesitation he had settled his immediate plans. To London he would not return, for he dreaded the temptations to which the proximity of Sidwell would expose him, and he had no mind to meet with Moxey or Earwaker. As it was now imperative that he should find work of the old kind, he could not do better than go to Bristol, where, from the safe ground of a cheap and obscure lodging, he might make inquiries, watch advertisements, and so on. He already knew of establishments in Bristol where he might possibly obtain employment. Living with the utmost economy, he need not fall into difficulties for more than a year, and before then his good repute with the Rotherhithe firm would ensure him some position or other; if not in Bristol, then at Newcastle, St Helen's -- any great centre of fuming and malodorous industry. He was ready to work, would delight in work. Idleness was now the intolerable thing.
So to Bristol he betook himself, and there made his temporary abode. After spending a few weeks in fruitless search for an engagement, he at length paid his oft-postponed visit to Twybridge. In the old home he felt completely a stranger, and his relatives strengthened the feeling by declaring him so changed in appearance that they hardly knew his face. With his mother only could he talk in anything like an intimate way, and the falsehoods with which he was obliged to answer her questions all but destroyed the pleasure he would otherwise have found in being affectionately tended. His sister, Mrs Cusse, was happy in her husband, her children, and a flourishing business. Oliver was making money, and enjoyed distinction among the shopkeeping community. His aunt still dealt in millinery, and kept up her acquaintance with respectable families. To Godwin all was like a dream dreamt for the second time. He could not acknowledge any actual connection between these people and himself. But their characteristics no longer gravely offended him, and he willingly recognised the homespun worth which their lives displayed. It was clear to him that by no possible agency of circumstances could he have been held in normal relations with his kinsfolk. However smooth his career, it must have wafted him to an immeasurable distance from Twybridge. Nature had decreed that he was to resemble the animals which, once reared, go forth in complete independence of birthplace and the ties of blood. It was a harsh fate, but in what had not fate been harsh to him? The one consolation was that he alone suffered. His mother was no doubt occasionally troubled by solicitude on his account, but she could not divine his inward miseries, and an assurance that he had no material cares sufficed to set her mind at ease.
'You are very like your father, Godwin,' she said, with a sigh. 'He couldn't rest, however well he seemed to be getting on. There was always something he wanted, and yet he didn't know what it was.'
'Yes, I must be like him,' Godwin replied, smiling.
He stayed five days, then returned to Bristol. A week after that, his mother forwarded to him a letter which had come to Twybridge. He at once recognised the writing, and broke the envelope with curiosity.
What could Marcella have to say to him? Nothing surely that he at all cared to hear. No doubt she imagined that he might be in ignorance of the circumstances which had led to Buckland Warricombe's discovery; she wished to defend herself against the suspicion of 'treachery'. He laughed carelessly, and threw her note aside.
Two months passed, and his efforts to find employment were still vain, though he had received conditional promises The solitude of his life grew burdensome. Several times he began a letter to Sidwell, but his difficulty in writing was so great that he destroyed the attempt. In truth, he knew not how to address her. The words he penned were tumid, meaningless. He could not send professions of love, for his heart seemed to be suffering a paralysis, and the laborious artificiality of his style must have been evident. The only excuse for breaking silence would be to let her know that he had resumed honest work; he must wait till the opportunity offered. It did not distress him to be without news of her. If she wished to write, and was only withheld by ignorance of his whereabouts, it was well; if she had no thought of sending him a word, it did not matter. He loved her, and consciously nourished hope, but for the present there was nothing intolerable in separation. His state of mind resulted partly from nervous reaction, and in part from a sense that only by silent suffering could his dignity in Sidwell's eyes be ultimately restored. Between the evil past and the hopeful future must be a complete break.
His thoughts kept turning to London, though not because Sidwell might still be there. He felt urgent need of speaking with a friend. Moxey was perhaps no longer to be considered one; but Earwaker would be tolerant of human weaknesses. To have a long talk with Earwaker would help him to recover his mental balance, to understand himself and his position better. So one morning in March, on the spur of the moment, he took train and was once more in the metropolis. On his way he had determined to send a note to Earwaker before calling at Staple Inn. He wrote it at a small hotel in Paddington, where he took a room for the night, and then spent the evening at a theatre, as the best way of killing time.
By the first post next morning came a card, whereon Earwaker had written: 'Be here, if you can, at two o'clock. Shall be glad to see you.'
'So you have been new-furnishing!' Godwin remarked, as he was admitted to the chambers. 'You look much more comfortable.'
'I'm glad you think so. It is the general opinion.'
They had shaken hands as though this were one of the ordinary meetings of old time, and their voices scarcely belied the appearance. Peak moved about the study, glancing at pictures and books, Earwaker eyeing him the while with not unfriendly expression. They were sincerely glad to see each other, and when Peak seated himself it was with an audible sigh of contentment.
'And what are you doing?' he inquired.
The journalist gave a brief account of his affairs, and Peak brightened with pleasure.
'This is good news. I knew you would shake off the ragamuffins before long. Give me some of your back numbers, will you? I shall be curious to examine your new style.'
'And you? -- Come to live in London?'
'No; I am at Bristol, but only waiting. There's a chance of an analyst's place in Lancashire; but I may give the preference to an opening I have heard of in Belgium. Better to go abroad, I think.'
'I have a question to ask you. I suppose you talked about that Critical article of mine before you received my request for silence?'
'That's how it was,' Earwaker replied, calmly.
'Yes; I understood. It doesn't matter.'
The other puffed at his pipe, and moved uneasily.
'I am taking for granted,' Peak continued, 'that you know how I have spent my time down in Devonshire.'
'In outline. Need we trouble about the details?'
'No. But don't suppose that I should feel any shame in talking to you about them. That would be a confession of base motive. You and I have studied each other, and we can exchange thoughts on most subjects with mutual understanding. You know that I have only followed my convictions to their logical issue. An opportunity offered of achieving the supreme end to which my life is directed, and what scruple could stand in my way? We have nothing to do with names and epithets. Here are the facts of life as I had known it; there is the existence promised as the reward of successful artifice. To live was to pursue the object of my being. I could not feel otherwise; therefore, could not act otherwise. You imagine me defeated, flung back into the gutter.' His words came more quickly, and the muscles of his face worked under emotion. 'It isn't so. I have a great and reasonable hope. Perhaps I have gained everything I really desired. I could tell you the strangest story, but there a scruple does interpose. If we live another twenty years -- but now I can only talk about myself.'
'And this hope of which you speak,' said Earwaker, with a grave smile, 'points you at present to sober work among your retorts and test-tubes?'
'Yes, it does.'
'Good. Then I can put faith in the result.'
'Yet the hope began in a lie,' rejoined Peak, bitterly. 'It will always be pleasant to look back upon that, won't it? You see: by no conceivable honest effort could I have gained this point. Life utterly denied to me the satisfaction of my strongest instincts, so long as I plodded on without cause of shame; the moment I denied my faith, and put on a visage of brass, great possibilities opened before me. Of course I understand the moralist's position. It behoved me, though I knew that a barren and solitary track would be my only treading to the end, to keep courageously onward. If I can't believe that any such duty is imposed upon me, where is the obligation to persevere, the morality of doing so? That is the worst hypocrisy. I have been honest, inasmuch as I have acted in accordance with my actual belief.'
'M -- m -- m,' muttered Earwaker, slowly. 'Then you have never been troubled with a twinge of conscience?'
'With a thousand! I have been racked, martyred. What has that to do with it? Do you suppose I attach any final significance to those torments? Conscience is the same in my view as an inherited disease which may possibly break out on any most innocent physical indulgence. -- What end have I been pursuing? Is it criminal? Is it mean? I wanted to win the love of a woman -- nothing more. To do that, I have had to behave like the grovelling villain who has no desire but to fill his pockets. And with success! -- You understand that, Earwaker? I have succeeded! What respect can I have for the common morality, after this?'
'You have succeeded?' the other asked, thoughtfully. 'I could have imagined that you had been in appearance successful' ----
He paused, and Peak resumed with vehemence:
'No, not in appearance only. I can't tell you the story' ----
'I don't wish you to' ----
'But what I have won is won for ever. The triumph no longer rests on deceit. What I insist upon is that by deceit only was it rendered possible. If a starving man succeeds in stealing a loaf of bread, the food will benefit him no less than if he had purchased it; it is good, true sustenance, no matter how he got it. To be sure, the man may prefer starvation; he may have so strong a metaphysical faith that death is welcome in comparison with what he calls dishonour. I -- I have no such faith; and millions of other men in this country would tell the blunt truth if they said the same. I have used means, that's all. The old way of candour led me to bitterness and cursing; by dissimulation I have won something more glorious than tongue can tell.'
It was in the endeavour to expel the subtlest enemy of his peace that Godwin dwelt so defiantly upon this view of the temptation to which he had yielded. Since his farewell interview with Sidwell, he knew no rest from the torment of a mocking voice which bade him bear in mind that all his dishonour had been superfluous, seeing that whilst he played the part of a zealous Christian, Sidwell herself was drifting further and further from the old religion. This voice mingled with his dreams, and left not a waking hour untroubled. He refused to believe it, strove against the suggestion as a half-despairing man does against the persistent thought of suicide. If only he could obtain Earwaker's assent to the plan he put forward, it would support him in disregard of idle regrets.
'It is impossible,' said the journalist, 'for anyone to determine whether that is true or not -- for you, as much as for anyone else. Be glad that you have shaken off the evil and retained the good, no use in saying more than that.'
'Yes,' declared the other, stubbornly, 'there is good in exposing false views of life. I ought to have come utterly to grief and shame, and instead' ----
'Instead ----? Well?'
'What I have told you.'
'Which I interpret thus: that you have permission to redeem your character, if possible, in the eyes of a woman you have grievously misled.'
'Who suggested this to you, Earwaker?'
'You; no one else. I don't even know who the woman is of whom you speak.'
'Grant you are right. As an honest man, I should never have won her faintest interest.'
'It is absurd for us to talk about it. Think in the way that is most helpful to you, -- that, no doubt, is a reasonable rule. Let us have done with all these obscurities, and come to a practical question. Can I be of any use to you? Would you care, for instance, to write an article now and then on some scientific matter that has a popular interest? I think I could promise to get that kind of thing printed for you. Or would you review an occasional book that happened to be in your line?'
'Thank you,' he replied, at length. 'I should be glad of such work -- if I can get into the mood for doing it properly. That won't be just yet; but perhaps when I have found a place' ----
'Think it over. Write to me about it.'
Peak glanced round the room.
'You don't know how glad I am,' he said, 'that your prosperity shows itself in this region of bachelordom. If I had seen you in a comfortable house, married to a woman worthy of you -- I couldn't have been sincere in my congratulations: I should have envied you so fiercely.'
'You're a strange fellow. Twenty years hence -- as you said just now -- you will one way or another have got rid of your astounding illusions. At fifty -- well, let us say at sixty -- you will have a chance of seeing things without these preposterous sexual spectacles.'
'I hope so. Every stage of life has its powers and enjoyments. When I am old, I hope to perceive and judge without passion of any kind. But is that any reason why my youth should be frustrated? We have only one life, and I want to live mine throughout.'
Soon after this Peak rose. He remembered that the journalist's time was valuable, and that he no longer had the right to demand more of it than could be granted to any casual caller. Earwaker behaved with all friendliness, but their relations had necessarily suffered a change. More than a year of separation, spent by the one in accumulating memories of dishonour, had given the other an enviable position among men; Earwaker had his place in the social system, his growing circle of friend, his congenial labour; perhaps -- notwithstanding the tone in which he spoke of marriage -- his hopes of domestic happiness. All this with no sacrifice of principle. He was fortunate in his temper, moral and intellectual; partly directing circumstances, partly guided by their pressure, he advanced on the way of harmonious development. Nothing great would come of his endeavours, but what he aimed at he steadily perfected. And this in spite of the adverse conditions under which he began his course. Nature had been kind to him; what more could one say?
When he went forth into the street again, Godwin felt his heart sink. His solitude was the more complete for this hour of friendly dialogue. No other companionship offered itself; if he lingered here, it must be as one of the drifting crowd, as an idle and envious spectator of the business and pleasure rife about him. He durst not approach that quarter of the town where Sidwell was living -- if indeed she still remained here. Happily, the vastness of London enabled him to think of her as at a great distance; by keeping to the district in which he now wandered he was practically as remote from her as when he walked the streets of Bristol.
Yet there was one person who would welcome him eagerly if he chose to visit her. And, after all, might it not be as well if he heard what Marcella had to say to him? He could not go to the house, for it would be disagreeable to encounter Moxey; but, if he wrote, Marcella would speedily make an appointment. After an hour or two of purposeless rambling, he decided to ask for an interview. He might learn something that really concerned him; in any case, it was a final meeting with Marcella, to whom he perhaps owed this much courtesy.
The reply was as prompt as that from Earwaker. By the morning post came a letter inviting him to call upon Miss Moxey as soon as possible before noon. She added, 'My brother is away in the country; you will meet no one here.'
By eleven o'clock he was at Notting Hill; in the drawing-room, he sat alone for two or three minutes. Marcella entered silently, and came towards him without a smile; he saw that she read his face eagerly, if not with a light of triumph in her eyes. The expression might signify that she rejoiced at having been an instrument of his discomfiture; perhaps it was nothing more than gladness at seeing him again.
'Have you come to live in London?' she asked, when they had shaken hands without a word.
'I am only here for a day or two.'
'My letter reached you without delay?'
'Yes. It was sent from Twybridge to Bristol. I didn't reply then, as I had no prospect of being in London.'
'Will you sit down? You can stay for a few minutes?'
He seated himself awkwardly. Now that he was in Marcella's presence, he felt that he had acted unaccountably in giving occasion for another scene between them which could only end as painfully as that at Exeter. Her emotion grew evident; he could not bear to meet the look she had fixed upon him.
'I want to speak of what happened in this house about Christmas time,' she resumed. 'But I must know first what you have been told.'
'What have you been told?' he replied,with an uneasy smile. 'How do you know that anything which happened here had any importance for me?'
'I don't know that it had. But I felt sure that Mr Warricombe meant to speak to you about it.'
'Yes, he did.'
'But did he tell you the exact truth? Or were you led to suppose that I had broken my promise to you?'
Unwilling to introduce any mention of Sidwell, Peak preferred to simplify the story by attributing to Buckland all the information he had gathered.
'I understood,' he replied, 'that Warricombe had come here in the hope of learning more about me, and that certain facts came out in general conversation. What does it matter how he learned what he did? From the day when he met you down in Devonshire, it was of course inevitable that the truth should sooner or later come out. He always suspected me.'
'But I want you to know,' said Marcella, 'that I had no willing part in it. I promised you not to speak even to my brother, and I should never have done so but that Christian somehow met Mr Warricombe, and heard him talk of you. Of course he came to me in astonishment, and for your own interest I thought it best to tell Christian what I knew. When Mr Warricombe came here, neither Christian nor I would have enlightened him about -- about your past. It happened most unfortunately that Mr Malkin was present, and he it was who began to speak of the Critical article -- and other things. I was powerless to prevent it.'
'Why trouble about it? I quite believe your account.'
'You do believe it? You know I would not have injured you?'
'I am sure you had no wish to,' Godwin replied, in as unsentimental a tone as possible. And, he added after a moment's pause, 'Was this what you were so anxious to tell me?'
'Yes. Chiefly that.'
'Let me put your mind at rest,' pursued the other, with quiet friendliness. 'I am disposed to turn optimist; everything has happened just as it should have done. Warricombe relieved me from a false position. If he hadn't done so, I must very soon have done it for myself. Let us rejoice that things work together for such obvious good. A few more lessons of this kind, and we shall acknowledge that the world is the best possible.'
He laughed, but the tense expression of Marcella's features did not relax.
'You say you are living in Bristol?'
'For a time.'
'Have you abandoned Exeter?'
The word implied something that Marcella could not utter more plainly. Her face completed the question.
'And the clerical career as well,' he answered.
But he knew that she sought more than this, and his voice again broke the silence.
'Perhaps you have heard that already? Are you in communication with Miss Moorhouse?'
She shook her head.
'But probably Warricombe has told your brother ----?'
'Oh, of his success in ridding Exeter of my objectionable presence.'
'Christian hasn't seen him again, nor have I.'
'I only wish to assure you that I have suffered no injury. My experiment was doomed to failure. What led me to it, how I regarded it, we won't discuss; I am as little prepared to do so now as when we talked at Exeter. That chapter in my life is happily over. As soon as I am established again in a place like that I had at Rotherhithe, I shall be quite contented.'
'Contented?' She smiled incredulously. 'For how long?'
'Who can say? I have lost the habit of looking far forward.'
Marcella kept silence so long that he concluded she had nothing more to say to him. It was an opportunity for taking leave without emotional stress, and he rose from his chair.
'Don't go yet,' she said at once. 'It wasn't only this that I' ----
Her voice was checked.
'Can I be of any use to you in Bristol?' Peak asked, determined to avoid the trial he saw approaching.
'There is something more I wanted to say,' she pursued, seeming not to hear him. 'You pretend to be contented, but I know that is impossible. You talk of going back to a dull routine of toil, when what you most desire is freedom. I want -- if I can -- to help you.'
Again she failed to command her voice. Godwin raised his eyes, and was astonished at the transformation she had suddenly undergone. Her face, instead of being colourless and darkly vehement, had changed to a bright warmth, a smiling radiance such as would have become a happy girl. His look seemed to give her courage.
'Only hear me patiently. We are such old friends -- are we not? We have so often proclaimed our scorn of conventionality, and why should a conventional fear hinder what I want to say? You know -- don't you? -- that I have far more money than I need or am ever likely to. I want only a few hundreds a year, and I have more than a thousand.' She spoke more and more quickly, fearful of being interrupted. 'Why shouldn't I give you some of my superfluity? Let me help you in this way. Money can do so much. Take some from me, and use it as you will -- just as you will. It is useless to me. Why shouldn't someone whom I wish well benefit by it?'
Godwin was not so much surprised as disconcerted. He knew that Marcella's nature was of large mould, and that whether she acted for good or evil its promptings would be anything but commonplace. The ardour with which she pleaded, and the magnitude of the benefaction she desired to bestow upon him, so affected his imagination that for the moment he stood as if doubting what reply to make. The doubt really in his mind was whether Marcella had calculated upon his weakness, and hoped to draw him within her power by the force of such an obligation, or if in truth she sought only to appease her heart with the exercise of generosity.
'You will let me?' she panted forth, watching him with brilliant eyes. 'This shall be a secret for ever between you and me. It imposes no debt of gratitude -- how I despise the thought! I give you what is worthless to me, -- except that it can do you good. But you can thank me if you will. I am not above being thanked.' She laughed unnaturally. 'Go and travel at first, as you wished to. Write me a short letter every month -- every two months, just that I may know you are enjoying your life. It is agreed, isn't it?'
She held her hand to him, but Peak drew away, his face averted.
'How can you give me the pain of refusing such an offer?' he exclaimed, with remonstrance which was all but anger. 'You know the thing is utterly impossible. I should be ridiculous if I argued about it for a moment.'
'I can't see that it is impossible.'
'Then you must take my word for it.But I have no right to speak to you in that way,' he added, more kindly, seeing the profound humiliation which fell upon her. 'You meant to come to my aid at a time when I seemed to you lonely and miserable. It was a generous impulse, and I do indeed thank you. I shall always remember it and be grateful to you.'
Marcella's face was again in shadow. Its lineaments hardened to an expression of cold, stern dignity.
'I have made a mistake,' she said. 'I thought you above common ways of thinking.'
'Yes, you put me on too high a pedestal,' Peak answered, trying to speak humorously. 'One of my faults is that I am apt to mistake my own position in the same way.'
'You think yourself ambitious. Oh, if you knew really great ambition! Go back to your laboratory, and work for wages. I would have saved you from that.'
The tone was not vehement, but the words bit all the deeper for their unimpassioned accent. Godwin could make no reply.
'I hope,' she continued, 'we may meet a few years hence. By that time you will have learnt that what I offered was not impossible. You will wish you had dared to accept it. I know what your ambition is. Wait till you are old enough to see it in its true light. How you will scorn yourself! Surely there was never a man who united such capacity for great things with so mean an ideal. You will never win even the paltry satisfaction on which you have set your mind -- never! But you can't be made to understand that. You will throw away all the best part of your life. Meet me in a few years, and tell me the story of the interval.'
'I will engage to do that, Marcella.'
'You will? But not to tell me the truth. You will not dare to tell the truth.'
'Why not?' he asked, indifferently. 'Decidedly I shall owe it you in return for your frankness to-day. Till then -- good-bye.'
She did not refuse her hand, and as he moved away she watched him with a smile of slighting good-nature.
On the morrow Godwin was back in Bristol, and there he dwelt for another six months, a period of mental and physical lassitude. Earwaker corresponded with him, and urged him to attempt the work that had been proposed, but such effort was beyond his power.
He saw one day in a literary paper an announcement that Reusch's Bibel und Natur was about to be published in an English translation. So someone else had successfully finished the work he undertook nearly two years ago. He amused himself with the thought that he could ever have persevered so long in such profitless labour, and with a contemptuous laugh he muttered 'Thohu wabohu.'
Just when the winter had set in, he received an offer of a post in chemical works at St Helen's, and without delay travelled northwards. The appointment was a poor one, and seemed unlikely to be a step to anything better, but his resources would not last more than another half year, and employment of whatever kind came as welcome relief to the tedium of his existence. Established in his new abode, he at length wrote to Sidwell. She answered him at once in a short letter which he might have shown to anyone, so calm were its expressions of interest, so uncompromising its words of congratulation. It began 'Dear Mr Peak', and ended with 'Yours sincerely'. Well, he had used the same formalities, and had uttered his feelings with scarcely more of warmth. Disappointment troubled him for a moment, and for a moment only. He was so far from Exeter, and further still from the life that he had led there. It seemed to him all but certain that Sidwell wrote coldly, with the intention of discouraging his hopes. What hope was he so foolish as to entertain? His position poorer than ever, what could justify him in writing love-letters to a girl who, even if willing to marry him, must not do so until he had a suitable home to offer her?
Since his maturity, he had never known so long a freedom from passion. One day he wrote to Earwaker: 'I begin to understand your independence with regard to women. It would be a strange thing if I became a convert to that way of thinking, but once or twice of late I have imagined that it was happening. My mind has all but recovered its tone, and I am able to read, to think -- I mean really to think, not to muse. I get through big and solid books. Presently, if your offer still hold good, I shall send you a scrap of writing on something or other. The pestilent atmosphere of this place seems to invigorate me. Last Saturday evening I took train, got away into the hills, and spent the Sunday geologising. And a curious experience befell me, -- one I had long, long ago, in the Whitelaw days. Sitting down before some interesting strata, I lost myself in something like nirvana, grew so subject to the idea of vastness in geological time that all human desires and purposes shrivelled to ridiculous unimportance. Awaking for a minute, I tried to realise the passion which not long ago rent and racked me, but I was flatly incapable of understanding it. Will this philosophic state endure? Perhaps I have used up all my emotional energy? I hardly know whether to hope or fear it.'
About midsummer, when his short holiday (he would only be released for a fortnight) drew near, he was surprised by another letter from Sidwell.
It was still 'Yours sincerely'; but Godwin felt that the letter meant more. In re-reading it he was pleasantly thrilled with a stirring of the old emotions. But his first impulse, to write an ardent reply, did not carry him away; he reflected and took counsel of the experience gained in his studious solitude. It was evident that by keeping silence he had caused Sidwell to throw off something of her reserve. The course dictated by prudence was to maintain an attitude of dignity, to hold himself in check. In this way he would regain what he had so disastrously lost, Sidwell's respect. There was a distinct pleasure in this exercise of self-command; it was something new to him; it flattered his pride. 'Let her learn that, after all, I am her superior. Let her fear to lose me. Then, if her love is still to be depended upon, she will before long find a way to our union. It is in her power, if only she wills it.'
So he sat down and wrote a short letter which seemed to him a model of dignified expression.
Sidwell took no one into her confidence. The case was not one for counsel; whatever her future action, it must result from the maturing of self-knowledge, from the effect of circumstance upon her mind and heart. For the present she could live in silence.
'We hear,' she wrote from London to Sylvia Moorhouse, 'that Mr Peak has left Exeter, and that he is not likely to carry out his intention of being ordained. You, I daresay, will feel no surprise.' Nothing more than that; and Sylvia's comments in reply were equally brief.
Martin Warricombe, after conversations with his wife and with Buckland, felt it impossible not to seek for an understanding of Sidwell's share in the catastrophe. He was gravely perturbed, feeling that with himself lay the chief responsibility for what had happened. Buckland's attitude was that of the man who can only keep repeating 'I told you so'; Mrs Warricombe could only lament and upbraid in the worse than profitless fashion natural to women of her stamp. But in his daughter Martin had every kind of faith, and he longed to speak to her without reserve. Two days after her return from Exeter, he took Sidwell apart, and, with a distressing sense of the delicacy of the situation, tried to persuade her to frank utterance.
'I have been hearing strange reports,' he began, gravely, but without show of displeasure. 'Can you help me to understand the real facts of the case, Sidwell? -- What is your view of Peak's behaviour?'
'He has deceived you, father,' was the quiet reply.
'You are convinced of that? -- It allows of no ----?'
'It can't be explained away. He pretended to believe what he did not and could not believe.'
'With interested motives, then?'
'Yes. -- But not motives in themselves dishonourable.'
There was a pause. Sidwell had spoken in a steady voice, though with eyes cast down. Whether her father could understand a position such as Godwin's, she felt uncertain. That he would honestly endeavour to do so, there could be no doubt, especially since he must suspect that her own desire was to distinguish between the man and his fault. But a revelation of all that had passed between her and Peak was not possible; she had the support neither of intellect nor of passion; it would be asking for guidance, the very thing she had determined not to do. Already she found it difficult to recover the impulses which had directed her in that scene of parting; to talk of it would be to see her action in such a doubtful light that she might be led to some premature and irretrievable resolve. The only trustworthy counsellor was time; on what time brought forth must depend her future.
'Do you mean, Sidwell,' resumed her father, 'that you think it possible for us to overlook this deception?'
She delayed a moment, then said:
'I don't think it possible for you to regard him as a friend.'
Martin's face expressed relief.
'But will he remain in Exeter?'
'I shouldn't think he can.'
Again a pause. Martin was of course puzzled exceedingly, but he began to feel some assurance that Peak need not be regarded as a danger.
'I am grieved beyond expression,' he said at length. 'So deliberate a fraud -- it seems to me inconsistent with any of the qualities I thought I saw in him.'
'Yes -- it must.'
'Not -- perhaps -- to you?' Martin ventured, anxiously.
'His nature is not base.'
'Forgive me, dear. -- I understand that you spoke with him after Buckland's call at his lodgings ----?'
'Yes, I saw him.'
'And -- he strove to persuade you that he had some motive which justified his conduct?'
'Excused, rather than justified.'
'Not -- it seems -- to your satisfaction?'
'I can't answer that question, father. My experience of life is too slight. I can only say that untruthfulness in itself is abhorrent to me, and that I could never try to make it seem a light thing.'
'That, surely, is a sound view, think as we may on speculative points. But allow me one more question, Sidwell. Does it seem to you that I have no choice but to break off all communication with Mr Peak?'
It was the course dictated by his own wish, she knew. And what could be gained by any middle way between hearty goodwill and complete repudiation? Time -- time alone must work out the problem.
'Yes, I think you have no choice,' she answered.
'Then I must make inquiries -- see if he leaves the town.'
'Mr Lilywhite will know, probably.'
'I will write before long.'
So the dialogue ended, and neither sought to renew it.
Martin enjoined upon his wife a discreet avoidance of the subject. The younger members of the family were to know nothing of what had happened, and, if possible, the secret must be kept from friends at Exeter. When a fortnight had elapsed, he wrote to Mr Lilywhite, asking whether it was true that Peak had gone away. 'It seems that private circumstances have obliged him to give up his project of taking Orders. Possibly he has had a talk with you?' The clergyman replied that Peak had left Exeter. 'I have had a letter from him, explaining in general terms his change of views. It hardly surprises me that he has reconsidered the matter. I don't think he was cut out for clerical work. He is far more likely to distinguish himself in the world of science. I suspect that conscientious scruples may have something to do with it; if so, all honour to him!'
The Warricombes prolonged their stay in London until the end of June. On their return home, Martin was relieved to find that scarcely an inquiry was made of him concerning Peak. The young man's disappearance excited no curiosity in the good people who had come in contact with him, and who were so far from suspecting what a notable figure had passed across their placid vision. One person only was urgent in his questioning. On an afternoon when Mrs Warricombe and her daughters were alone, the Rev. Bruno Chilvers made a call.
'Oh!' he exclaimed, after a few minutes' conversation, 'I am so anxious to ask you what has become of Mr Peak. Soon after my arrival in Exeter, I went to see him, and we had a long talk -- a most interesting talk. Then I heard all at once that he was gone, and that we should see no more of him. Where is he? What is he doing?'
There was a barely appreciable delay before Mrs Warricombe made answer.
'We have quite lost sight of him,' she said, with an artificial smile. 'We know only that he was called away on some urgent business -- family affairs, I suppose.'
Chilvers, in the most natural way, glanced from the speaker to Sidwell, and instantly, without the slightest change of expression, brought his eyes back again.
'I hope most earnestly,' he went on, in his fluty tone, 'that he will return. A most interesting man! A man of large intellectual scope, and really broad sympathies. I looked forward to many a chat with him. Has he, I wonder, been led to change his views? Possibly he would find a secular sphere more adapted to his special powers.'
Mrs Warricombe had nothing to say. Sidwell, finding that Mr Chilvers' smile now beamed in her direction, replied to him with steady utterance:
'It isn't uncommon, I think, nowadays, for doubts to interfere with the course of study for ordination?'
'Far from uncommon!' exclaimed the Rector of St Margaret's, with almost joyous admission of the fact. 'Very far from uncommon. Such students have my profound sympathy. I know from experience exactly what it means to be overcome in a struggle with the modern spirit. Happily for myself, I was enabled to recover what for a time I lost. But charity forbid that I should judge those who think they must needs voyage for ever in sunless gulfs of doubt", or even absolutely deny that the human intellect can be enlightened from above.'
At a loss even to follow this rhetoric, Mrs Warricombe, who was delighted to welcome the Rev. Bruno, and regarded him as a gleaming pillar of the Church, made haste to introduce a safer topic. After that, Mr Chilvers was seen at the house with some frequency. Not that he paid more attention to the Warricombes than to his other acquaintances. Relieved by his curate from the uncongenial burden of mere parish affairs, he seemed to regard himself as an apostle at large, whose mission directed him to the households of well-to-do people throughout the city. His brother clergymen held him in slight esteem. In private talk with Martin Warricombe, Mr Lilywhite did not hesitate to call him 'a mountebank', and to add other depreciatory remarks.
'My wife tells me -- and I can trust her judgment in such things -- that his sole object just now is to make a good marriage. Rather disagreeable stories seem to have followed him from the other side of England. He makes love to all unmarried women -- never going beyond what is thought permissible, but doing a good deal of mischief, I fancy. One lady in Exeter -- I won't mention names -- has already pulled him up with a direct inquiry as to his intentions; at her house, I imagine, he will no more be seen.'
The genial parson chuckled over his narrative, and Martin, by no means predisposed in the Rev. Bruno's favour, took care to report these matters to his wife.
'I don't believe a word of it!' exclaimed Mrs Warricombe. 'All the clergy are jealous of Mr Chilvers.'
'What? Of his success with ladies?'
'Martin! It is something new for you to be profane! -- They are jealous of his high reputation.'
'Rather a serious charge against our respectable friends.'
'And the stories are all nonsense,' pursued Mrs Warricombe. 'It's very wrong of Mr Lilywhite to report such things. I don't believe any other clergyman would have done so.'
Martin smiled -- as he had been accustomed to do all through his married life -- and let the discussion rest there. On the next occasion of Mr Chilvers being at the house, he observed the reverend man's behaviour with Sidwell, and was not at all pleased. Bruno had a way of addressing women which certainly went beyond the ordinary limits of courtesy. At a little distance, anyone would have concluded that he was doing his best to excite Sidwell's affectionate interest. The matter of his discourse might be unobjectionable, but the manner of it was not in good taste.
Mrs Warricombe was likewise observant, but with other emotions. To her it seemed a subject for pleasurable reflection, that Mr Chilvers should show interest in Sidwell. The Rev. Bruno had bright prospects. With the colour of his orthodoxy she did not concern herself. He was ticketed 'broad', a term which carried with it no disparagement; and Sidwell's sympathies were altogether with the men of 'breadth'. The time drew near when Sidwell must marry, if she ever meant to do so, and in comparison with such candidates as Mr Walsh and Godwin Peak, the Rector of St Margaret's would be an ideal husband for her. Sidwell's attitude towards Mr Chilvers was not encouraging, but Mrs Warricombe suspected that a lingering regard for the impostor, so lately unmasked, still troubled her daughter's mind: a new suitor, even if rejected, would help the poor girl to dismiss that shocking infatuation.
Sidwell and her father nowadays spent much time together, and in the autumn days it became usual for them to have an afternoon ramble about the lanes. Their talk was of science and literature, occasionally skirting very close upon those questions which both feared to discuss plainly -- for a twofold reason. Sidwell read much more than had been her wont, and her choice of authors would alone have indicated a change in her ways of thinking, even if she had not allowed it to appear in the tenor of her talk. The questions she put with reference to Martin's favourite studies were sometimes embarrassing.
One day they happened to meet Mr Chilvers, who was driving with his eldest child, a boy of four. The narrowness of the road made it impossible -- as Martin would have wished -- to greet and pass on. Chilvers stopped the carriage and jumped out. Sidwell could not but pay some attention to the youthful Chilvers.
'Till he is ten years old,' cried Bruno, 'I shall think much more of his body than of his mind. In fact, at this age the body is the mind. Books, books -- oh, we attach far too much importance to them. Over-study is one of the morbific tendencies of our time. Some one or other has been trying to frown down what he calls the excessive athleticism of our public schools. No, no! Let us rejoice that our lads have such an opportunity of vigorous physical development. The culture of the body is a great part of religion.' He always uttered remarks of this kind as if suggesting that his hearers should note them in a collection of aphorisms. 'If to labour is to pray, so also is the practice of open-air recreation.
When they had succeeded in getting away, father and daughter walked for some minutes without speaking. At length Sidwell asked, with a smile:
'How does this form of Christianity strike you?'
'Why, very much like a box on the ear with a perfumed glove,' replied Martin.
'That describes it very well.'
They walked a little further, and Sidwell spoke in a more serious tone.
'If Mr Chilvers were brought before the ecclesiastical authorities and compelled to make a clear statement of his faith, what sect, in all the history of heresies, would he really seem to belong to?'
'I know too little of him, and too little of heresies.'
'Do you suppose for a moment that he sincerely believes the dogmas of his Church?'
Martin bit his lip and looked uneasy.
'We can't judge him, Sidwell.'
'I don't know,' she persisted. 'It seems to me that he does his best to give us the means of judging him. I half believe that he often laughs in himself at the success of his audacity.'
'No, no.I think the man is sincere.'
This was very uncomfortable ground, but Sidwell would not avoid it. Her eyes flashed, and she spoke with a vehemence such as Martin had never seen in her.
'Undoubtedly sincere in his determination to make a figure in the world. But a Christian, in any intelligible sense of that much-abused word, -- no! He is one type of the successful man of our day. Where thousands of better and stronger men struggle vainly for fair recognition, he and his kind are glorified. In comparison with a really energetic man, he is an acrobat. The crowd stares at him and applauds, and there is nothing he cares for so much as that kind of admiration.'
Martin kept silence, and in a few minutes succeeded in; broaching a wholly different subject.
Not long after this, Mr Chilvers paid a call at the conventional hour. Sidwell, hoping to escape, invited two girls to step out with her on to the lawn. The sun was sinking, and, as she stood with eyes fixed upon it, the Rev. Bruno's voice disagreeably broke her reverie. She was perforce involved in a dialogue, her companions moving aside.
'What a magnificent sky!' murmured Chilvers. '"There sinks the nebulous star." Forgive me, I have fallen into a tiresome trick of quoting. How differently a sunset is viewed nowadays from what it was in old times! Our impersonal emotions are on a higher plane -- don't you think so? Yes, scientific discovery has done more for religion than all the ages of pious imagination. A theory of Galileo or Newton is more to the soul than a psalm of David.'
'You think so?' Sidwell asked, coldly.
In everyday conversation she was less suave than formerly. This summer she had never worn her spray of sweet-brier, and the omission might have been deemed significant of a change in herself. When the occasion offered, she no longer hesitated to express a difference of opinion; at times she uttered her dissent with a bluntness which recalled Buckland's manner in private.
'Does the comparison seem to you unbecoming?' said Chilvers, with genial condescension. 'Or untrue?'
'What do you mean by "the soul"?' she inquired, still gazing away from him.
'The principle of conscious life in man -- that which under- stands and worships.'
'The two faculties seem to me so different that' ---- She broke off. 'But I mustn't talk foolishly about such things.'
'I feel sure you have thought of them to some purpose. I wonder whether you ever read Francis Newman's book on The Soul?'
'No, I never saw it.'
'Allow me to recommend it to you. I believe you would find it deeply interesting.'
'Does the Church approve it?'
'The Church?' He smiled. 'Ah! what Church? Churchmen there are, unfortunately, who detest the name of its author, but I hope you have never classed me among them. The Church, rightly understood, comprehends every mind and heart that is striving upwards. The age of intolerance will soon be as remote from us as that of persecution. Can I be mistaken in thinking that this broader view has your sympathy, Miss Warricombe?'
'I can't sympathise with what I don't understand, Mr Chilvers.'
He looked at her with tender solicitude, bending slightly from his usual square-shouldered attitude.
'Do let me find an opportunity of talking over the whole matter with you -- by no means as an instructor. In my view, a clergyman may seek instruction from the humblest of those who are called his flock. The thoughtful and high-minded among them will often assist him materially in his endeavour at self-development. To my "flock",' he continued, playfully, 'you don't belong; but may I not count you one of that circle of friends to whom I look for the higher kind of sympathy?'
Sidwell glanced about her in the hope that some one might be approaching. Her two friends were at a distance, talking and laughing together.
'You shall tell me some day,' she replied, with more attention to courtesy, 'what the doctrines of the Broad Church really are. But the air grows too cool to be pleasant; hadn't we better return to the drawing-room?'
The greater part of the winter went by before she had again to submit to a tête-à-tête with the Rev. Bruno. It was seldom that she thought of him save when compelled to do so by his exacting presence, but in the meantime he exercised no small influence on her mental life. Insensibly she was confirmed in her alienation from all accepted forms of religious faith. Whether she wished it or not, it was inevitable that such a process should keep her constantly in mind of Godwin Peak. Her desire to talk with him at times became so like passion that she appeared to herself to love him more truly than ever. Yet such a mood was always followed by doubt, and she could not say whether the reaction distressed or soothed her. These months that had gone by brought one result, not to be disguised. Whatever the true nature of her feeling for Godwin, the thought of marrying him was so difficult to face that it seemed to involve impossibilities. He himself had warned her that marriage would mean severance from all her kindred. It was practically true, and time would only increase the difficulty of such a determination.
The very fact that her love (again, if love it were) must be indulged in defiance of universal opinion tended to keep emotion alive. A woman is disposed to cling to a lover who has disgraced himself, especially if she can believe that the disgrace was incurred as a result of devotion to her. Could love be separated from thought of marriage, Sidwell would have encouraged herself in fidelity, happy in the prospect of a life-long spiritual communion -- for she would not doubt of Godwin's upward progress, of his eventual purification. But this was a mere dream. If Godwin's passion were steadfast, the day would come when she must decide either to cast in her lot with his, or to bid him be free. And could she imagine herself going forth into exile?
There came a letter from him, and she was fortunate enough to receive it without the knowledge of her relatives. He wrote that he had obtained employment. The news gave her a troubled joy, lasting for several days. That no emotion appeared in her reply was due to a fear lest she might be guilty of misleading him. Perhaps already she had done so. Her last whisper -- 'Some day!' -- was it not a promise and an appeal? Now she had not the excuse of profound agitation, there must be no word her conscience could not justify. But in writing those formal lines she felt herself a coward. She was drawing back -- preparing her escape.
Often she had the letter beneath her pillow. It was the first she had ever received from a man who professed to love her. So long without romance in her life, she could not but entertain this semblance of it, and feel that she was still young.
It told much in Godwin's favour that he had not ventured to write before there was this news to send her. It testified to the force of his character, the purity of his purpose. A weaker man, she knew, would have tried to excite her compassion by letters of mournful strain, might even have distressed her with attempts at clandestine meeting. She had said rightly -- his nature was not base. And she loved him! She was passionately grateful to him for proving that her love had not been unworthily bestowed.
When he wrote again, her answer should not be cowardly.
The life of the household went on as it had been wont to do for years, but with the spring came events. An old lady died whilst on a visit to the house (she was a half-sister of Mrs Warricombe), and by a will executed a few years previously she left a thousand pounds, to be equally divided between the children of this family. Sidwell smiled sadly on finding herself in possession of this bequest, the first sum of any importance that she had ever held in her own right. If she married a man of whom all her kith and kin so strongly disapproved that they would not give her even a wedding present, two hundred and fifty pounds would be better than no dowry at all. One could furnish a house with it.
Then Fanny had an attack of bronchitis, and whilst she was recovering Buckland came down for a few days, bringing with him a piece of news for which no one was prepared. As if to make reparation to his elder sister for the harshness with which he had behaved in the affair of Godwin Peak, he chose her for his first confidante.
'Sidwell, I am going to be married. Do you care to hear about it?'
'Certainly I do.'
Long ago she had been assured of Sylvia Moorhouse's sincerity in rejecting Buckland's suit. That was still a grief to her, but she acknowledged her friend's wisdom, and was now very curious to learn who it was that the Radical had honoured with his transferred affections.
'The lady's name,' Buckland began, 'is Miss Matilda Renshaw. She is the second daughter of a dealer in hides, tallow, and that kind of thing. Both her parents are dead; she has lived of late with her married sister at Blackheath.'
Sidwell listened with no slight astonishment, and her countenance looked what she felt.
'That's the bald statement of the cause,' pursued her brother, seeming to enjoy the consternation he had excited. 'Now, let me fill up the outline. Miss Renshaw is something more than good-looking, has had an admirable education, is five-and-twenty, and for a couple of years has been actively engaged in humanitarian work in the East End. She has published a book on social questions, and is a very good public speaker. Finally, she owns property representing between three and four thousand a year.'
'The picture has become more attractive,' said Sidwell.
'You imagined a rather different person? If I persuade mother to invite her down here presently, do you think you could be friendly with her?'
'I see no reason why I should not be.'
'But I must warn you. She has nothing to do with creeds and dogmas.'
He tried to read her face. Sidwell's mind was a mystery to him.
'I shall make no inquiry about her religious views,' his sister replied, in a dispassionate tone, which conveyed no certain meaning.
'Then I feel sure you will like her, and equally sure that she will like you.'
His parents had no distinct fault to find with this choice, though they would both greatly have preferred a daughter-in-law whose genealogy could be more freely spoken of. Miss Renshaw was invited to Exeter, and the first week of June saw her arrival. Buckland had in no way exaggerated her qualities. She was a dark-eyed beauty, perfect from the social point of view, a very interesting talker, -- in short, no ordinary woman. That Buckland should have fallen in love with her, even after Sylvia, was easily understood; it seemed likely that she would make him as good a wife as he could ever hope to win.
Sidwell was expecting another letter from the north of England. The silence which during those first months had been justifiable was now a source of anxiety. But whether fear or hope predominated in her expectancy, she still could not decide. She had said to herself that her next reply should not be cowardly, yet she was as far as ever from a courageous resolve.
Mental harassment told upon her health. Martin, watching her with solicitude, declared that for her sake as much as for Fanny's they must have a thorough holiday abroad.
Urged by the approaching departure, Sidwell overcame her reluctance to write to Godwin before she had a letter to answer. It was done in a mood of intolerable despondency, when life looked barren before her, and the desire of love all but triumphed over every other consideration. The letter written and posted, she would gladly have recovered it -- reserved, formal as it was. Cowardly still; but then Godwin had not written.
She kept a watch upon the postman, and again, when Godwin's reply was delivered, escaped detection.
Hardly did she dare to open the envelope. Her letter had perchance been more significant than she supposed; and did not the mere fact of her writing invite a lover's frankness?
But the reply was hardly more moving than if it had come from a total stranger. For a moment she felt relieved; in an hour's time she suffered indescribable distress. Godwin wrote -- so she convinced herself after repeated perusals -- as if discharging a task; not a word suggested tenderness. Had the letter been unsolicited, she could have used it like the former one; but it was the answer to an appeal. The phrases she had used were still present in her mind. 'I am anxious . . . it is more than half a year since you wrote . . . I have been expecting . . . anything that is of interest to you will interest me. . . .' How could she imagine that this was reserved and formal? Shame fell upon her; she locked herself from all companionship, and wept in rebellion against the laws of life.
A fortnight later, she wrote from Royat to Sylvia Moorhouse. It was a long epistle, full of sunny descriptions, breathing renewed vigour of body and mind. The last paragraph ran thus:
'Yesterday was my birthday; I was twenty-eight. At this age, it is wisdom in a woman to remind herself that youth is over. I don't regret it; let it go with all its follies! But I am sorry that I have no serious work in life; it is not cheerful to look forward to perhaps another eight-and-twenty years of elegant leisure -- that is to say, of wearisome idleness. What can I do? Try and think of some task for me, something that will last a lifetime.'
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